Headed by the power musical couple of pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel (who started performing full-time with his wife after a 34-year tenure with the Emerson String Quartet), the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) is nearing the end of a five-concert series of smart programming at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park. Their programs highlight the old and the new: classical masters mixed with modern/contemporary voices, performed by an ensemble of seasoned veterans and cheery young faces.
Wednesday night’s offering of Festive Classics started with the Kegelstatt Trio for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano in E-flat major, K. 498, the first of three clarinet pieces Mozart wrote towards the end of his life. The other two, a quintet, K. 581, and concerto, K. 622, both passionate, pinnacle artistic achievements, would be on many classical aficionados’ desert island playlists. Shadowed by such company, the trio, with its cheerful and festive moods, gets far less attention. In the hands of expert players, however, the trio can be delightful, and the CMS delivered with newcomer clarinetist Jose Franche-Ballester, joined by another newcomer, pianist Gilles Vonsattel and veteran violist Paul Neubauer.
The Kegelstatt, a three-movement work, is unusual in that it opened with a slow and graceful andante in waltz time. This particular performance started rather haltingly, with Vonsattel and Neubauer hesitating in their unison entrance. By the time Franche-Ballester joined in, things had gotten into full swing and the ensemble totally gelled. From slow beginnings, the piece then built through the second movement, a Menuetto, which featured a middle section where Franche-Ballester and Vonsattel passed melodies back and forth, while Neubauer backed up with rapid infills. It concluded with a frolicking Rondeaux finale.
While the ensemble playing was generally sharp, Vonsattel was especially impressive here and in the other two works in which he played. He was very gentle but with total precision, essential for the Kegelstatt because no other composer’s works reveal bad playing faster than Mozart’s do—definitely not a problem Wednesday night.
Vonsattel was joined at the keyboard by Wu Han for a spirited rendition of Mendelssohn’s Andante and Allegro brilliant for Piano Four Hands, Op. 92. Mendelssohn wrote some truly magical piano works, and this piece, which I had never previously heard, offered surprises right from the get go. It started out with the players passing the baton a few times, with Han playing a melodic passage that was then gracefully taken up by Vonstattel, playing virtually from the same notes. By the time all four hands were playing at once, the beautiful theme of the Andante just flowed.
This was followed without break by the rapid Allegro brilliant, which showed off Mendelssohn’s playfulness in the sort of piece where he excelled: a so-called scherzo. Han and Vonsattel had similar touches on the keyboard, and together they were the perfect sages to pull off Mendelssohn’s magic.
The festivities continued with the raucous Trio for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano by American composer Paul Schoenfield. Composed in 1986, this Trio delved into klezmer and eastern European influences to create a fast paced romp interspersed with quiet, delicate moments. Schoenfield very capably blended atonal dissonances with tonal consonances, which, like stops at a rest area, served as momentary periods of calm amidst all of the din and cacophony.
Appropriately, this modern work featured the younger CMS talent, with Vonsattel and clarinetist Franche-Ballester joined by violinist Chad Hoopes. Given how briefly these performers had played together, their ensemble capabilities were remarkable. Interaction and blend seemed instinctive, as if they had been playing together for years. This piece was fun to watch, and the players were clearly having a blast, with Franche-Ballester and Hoopes leading the way.
The second half opened with the wonderful, yet somewhat less festive Piano Quartet in E-flat major by Robert Schumann, Op. 47. Schumann spent most of 1842 writing chamber music. By the time he got to this piano quartet, having already written three string quartets and a piano quintet, he had it nailed, as did the CMS players, even if their performance wasn’t quite note-perfect.
This work had many interesting compositional elements, especially how each movement gave prominence to different instruments or groupings of instruments. Front and center in the first movement was the piano, which Wu Han played with vigor while violinist Chad Hoopes, violist Paul Neubauer, and, for the first time of the evening, cellist David Finckel, offered deft accompaniment. The piano also took a major role in the second movement, a frenetic, yet eerie scherzo, which also featured considerable interplay between the piano and strings. With much of this fast-paced movement played quietly, the CMS were especially effective in highlighting the contrasting loud passages.
The slower Andante cantabile had a different approach with the piano taking a back seat while first the cello, then the viola, and, finally, the violin, took turns playing a beautiful, extended, song-like melody. It was the best opportunity of the night for Finckel to show off his rare cello technique that focused mainly on the note’s tone, instead of the instrument’s texture. It all resolved into brilliant fugal finale where the players contributed equally. Schumann was especially gifted in his ability to end works with flourish and flair; this piano quartet was no exception.
Restoring the evening’s festivities was a rousing encore, Americn Vision by Romanian Composer Georges Boulanger, a work of exceptional levity. It was a charming and light way to call it a night.
The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center plays one more concert this season, American Visions, at Harris Theater Thursday, April 21. It will feature work by Americans Gottschalk, Ives and Crumb, in addition to the Czech composer, Dvorak, who wrote several marvelous works during a lengthy sojourn in the United States. (Boulanger’s American Visions is not on the program, but an encore?)