Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center – Tribute to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge – Ravel, Bartók, Poulenc & Copland

Chansons madécasses
String Quartet No.5 in B flat
Sonata for Flute and Piano
Appalachian Spring – Suite

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center: Andre-Michel Schub (piano), Yura Lee & Kristin Lee (violins), Mark Holloway (viola), Fred Sherry (cello), Kurt Muroki (double bass), Ransom Wilson (flute), Alexander Fiterstein (clarinet) & Peter Kolkay (bassoon)

Tamara Mumford (mezzo-soprano)

Escher String Quartet [Adam Barnett-Hart & Wu Jie (violins), Pierre Lapointe (viola) & Dane Johansen (cello)]

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 26 February, 2012
Venue: Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge was one of the twentieth-century’s most influential music patrons. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center did itself proud by paying tribute with a program of four diverse works commissioned by her between 1925 and 1957.

Escher String Quartet. Photograph: Tristan CookIn Ravel’s Chansons madécasses – the earliest of the works – Tamara Mumford’s approach was far less theatrical than Carole Farley’s supercharged performance at the New York Chamber Music Festival last fall. Mumford’s singing, luxuriant and languid, painted a more sophisticated sensuality than Ravel may have intended, particularly when framed by the beautiful sounds provided by Ransom Wilson, Fred Sherry, and Andre-Michel Schub. While this may have superimposed a romantic template on these eighteenth-century French translations of poetry from Madagascar, it suited the music well and provided ample proof that there is more than one way to convey this woefully underrated and underperformed song cycle.

Bartók’s Fifth String Quartet is one of the greatest chamber works of the last century. Its initial critical response strongly emphasized the composer’s structural and formal achievement in this five-movement work, and perhaps it has taken a couple of generations for listeners to appreciate its expressive melodies, strong rhythmic impetus and pungent harmonic gestures. The Escher Quartet, founded not quite seven years ago, plays this challenging work with technical assurance and tight ensemble. The edgier sonorities of the first two movements were downplayed in favor of a more refined, euphonious sound, but there was character and humor aplenty in the scherzo, lots of longing in the Andante, and vigor in the finale.

The most conservative work on the program, Poulenc’s charming Flute Sonata, is also the most recent. I’ve heard fine performances of this piece from students and professionals, but I’ve not heard it played with quite as much charm, beauty, and effortless delight as Wilson and Schub delivered.

Aaron Copland completed Appalachian Spring in 1944 for Martha Graham and her dance company. We heard the Suite in the original thirteen-player scoring. While some would prefer the orchestral version, the thoroughly idiomatic and surprisingly forceful playing of this chamber ensemble was remarkably satisfying.

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