Saturday, September 21, 2019

Chamber Music for Two Cellos at Old First Concerts

The title of last night’s program in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Presbyterian Church was Cello++, so titled because the selections consisted of two chamber music compositions, both of which required two cellos. Both of the cellists are members of local piano trios, Brady Anderson in the Alden Trio and Michelle Kwon in the Delphi trio. The other performers were the violinists of those trios, Yuri Kye (last seen at Old First at the beginning of this month playing with Tangonero) and Liana Bérubé, respectively, and violist Aaron Rosengaus. The compositions themselves were written by, in order of performance, Anton Arensky and Franz Schubert.

The jewel in last night’s crown, so to speak, was definitely the Schubert selection, the D. 956 quintet in C major. Those aware of Schubert’s almost superhuman productivity during the months leading up to his death in November of 1828 should bear in mind that this quintet was composed between August and October of that year. (Those who have followed this site for some time probably know by now that all three of Schubert’s final and monumental piano sonatas were composed during that September, and many believe he worked on all three of them simultaneously.) His decision to write a quintet with two cellos, rather than two violas (as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had done), definitely biased the lower sonorities; but, regardless of its biographical context, there is nothing dark about this quintet.

Instead, there is very much a “sunny disposition” (as John Cage would have put it) to the four movements, each of which explores different combinations of the instruments, allowing those combinations to play off of each other. In addition, the second (Adagio) movement is definitely a candidate for providing the most sublime moments in the entire repertoire (of all genres, not just chamber music). The prevailing rhetoric is one of under-spoken minimality with themes that are little more than gestures. Yet each of those gestures seizes the attention of the listener, who willingly allows self to be transported to the quietude of an alternative reality. (For what it is worth, I personally tend to associate this movement with John Donne’s poem “The Ecstasy.”)

Last night’s performance definitely lavished D. 956 with all the attention it deserves. Each of the five performers was always acutely aware of the other four, thus endowing each subgroup of players to dazzle with its own characteristic sonorities. Expressiveness was never short-changed, but the group consistently knew how to balance the intensity of the rhetoric against the syntactic nuts and bolts of the score itself. Precision never took a back seat to emotion. This monument to the intensity and elegant structure of Schubert’s passions could not have been given better execution.

Sadly, the Arensky selection came off as rather pale when placed alongside D. 956. His Opus 53 is a quartet in A minor, and Kye was the one violinist in the performance. Arensky composed the piece as a memorial to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. However, his effort is little more than a pale shadow, particularly to those familiar with Tchaikovsky’s own chamber music compositions. Last night’s execution did its best to do justice to the piece, allowing the group’s own polished rhetoric to compensate for thematic material that had more to do with extra-musical influences than with the nuts-and-bolts of harmonic and contrapuntal syntax. Nevertheless, the score “is what it is;” and the musicians cannot be faulted for making the best of the cards dealt to them.

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