Few things are more enjoyable than a stunning performance of an absolute masterpiece, which is how the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center opened their 2019-2020 season at the Harris Theater on Wednesday night. Immortal Schubert was a program of quintets that ended with a bang: Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C-major, D.956, one of the last works he wrote. “Immortal” is a perfectly apt word for this piece that Schubert finished in the weeks just before he died in 1828 at the age of 31.
This is the CMS’ ninth season at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park. Each year it offers a series of four or five concerts that involve different players in variable ensemble line-ups. These often include a piano and wood winds, but Wednesday night was devoted exclusively to strings and included Sean Lee and Arnaud Sussmann on violin, Mark Holloway and Chicago native Matthew Lipman on viola, and David Requiro and Clive Greensmith on cello. The program had quintets exclusively, so one of these players always sat out, but the violins and cellist Requiro were always onstage.
The program opened with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s String Quintet in B-flat major, K. 174. This is the first of five quintets Mozart wrote for a lineup of string quartet with an additional viola. He also used this lineup in a transcription for strings of a serenade originally for winds. While he wrote several delightful string quartets, attention has often focused on his quintets, where the extra viola gave him unusual harmonic and expressive capabilities. The 17-year-old Mozart wrote this first one right after completing several string quartets. It is an oddity in that it experiments with the musical forms that make up the work, which is something Mozart rarely did. It also shows that Mozart still had much to learn with this particular ensemble makeup because the second viola does not have much to do, and the cello does little more than provide bass backup—a very different situation from his later forays into this medium.
Immediately before the performance, Lipman gave a quick program synopsis to his home town crowd. He was joined onstage by Lee, Sussman, Holloway, and Requiro for an animated performance of the Mozart. The interactions between the violins and viola were very polished in the opening Allegro moderato. Attention often focused on Holloway, who played nicely when his first viola carried the tune on several occasions. A high point came toward the end of the middle section when the violas and cello passed rapidly fingered run between each other.
After a charming Adagio slow movement played with muted strings, the Minuetto am allegretto featured a fascinating twist in the middle. Lee on first violin and Holloway on first viola played a melodic tune, and Sussman on second violin and Lipman on viola quietly echoed it. This unusual effect came out just right. The work finished with a tight performance of the frolicking finale.
The next work on the program had a string quartet with an added cello. Cellist Greensmith joined the ensemble, while Lipman sat out for a new quintet co-commissioned by the CMS by American composer Bruce Adolphe. In the program notes, he explained that the title of this work, Are There Not a Thousand Forms of Sorrow, came from the Ethan Canin novel, A Doubter’s Almanac. Adolphe shared that this piece reflected his revulsion and anger at the current political environment in America. He wrote, “The political situation at the time of the first performance will affect whether the audience perceives the music as a composer’s autobiographical statement or as an outcry of the resistance.”
Unfortunately the political situation in America had not changed by the world premiere last spring, nor had it changed by Wednesday night’s Chicago premiere. While this reviewer did not necessarily feel an outcry from this marvelous music, he did feel the sorrow and the gloom that pervades. It started right from the beginning when one cello moaned and the other cello and viola added to the ominous sound. Soon the violins shrieked overhead. As the piece progressed, shifting instrument combinations and dynamic levels emitted changing auras and levels of dismay. The music went in and out of tonality, but the key of gloom pervaded, and the performance was perfectly eerie. The CMS players rose to the challenge.
Following intermission, the delight continued with the work Immortal Schubert was intended to celebrate, Schubert’s great string quintet, which continued Adolphe’s double cello lineup with the violists substituting for one another. The opening Allegro ma non troppo starts strangely in that there is no simple, hummable tune. Rather, it is a slow buildup of sounds, starting with a C-major chord that morphs into diminished and minor chords separated by short melodic snippets. It isn’t until the secondary theme that a charming Schubertian melody finally emerges, first played by the viola and first cello, backed by rhythms from the other instruments. It is quickly reprised by the violins.
That Wednesday’s night’s performance was special was clear from the beginning as the ensemble gelled their way through the opening chords, and the emerging melody moved seamlessly between players. As the piece moved toward climax in the opening movement’s first section, the instruments shifted between melody and rapid backup runs. The performance had such warmth and feeling, this reviewer was nearly brought to tears, and he felt mild disappointment when there was no repeat.
The performers really showed their moxie in the slow second movement, Adagio. The opening section features devotional chord progressions around a meditative theme, and the CMS players kept it very sensitive. Performances can bog down here, but not this one. The CMS players kept the meditation riveting, which allowed for a nice contrast with the stormy middle section.
The third movement, Scherzo. Presto – Trio. Andante sostenuto, follows the meditative second movement with an opening fanfare that the CMS players captured perfectly. This music can be quite bombastic, but this performance, while tight, started a tad measured, seemingly in obeisance to the meditative feel of the previous movement. It was a marvelous approach.
Schubert wrapped up this immortal work with a finale that replicated the shifting emotions in a single movement that, like the opening, started in an unusual way. In this case, the Allegretto opened in c-minor instead of the typical home key of C-major. This seemingly unsettled state of affairs soon sorts itself out, but not without giving the players an intense workout 40 minutes into what has already been an intense performance. The CMS players definitely came through with the emotion that had been on display all evening. The speeded-up ending, well performed, resulted in a rousing ovation.
The CMS next presents what has become an annual yuletide tradition, all six of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Harris Theater in Millennium Park, December 20 at 7:30pm, $30-70 for reserved seats.