Alice Tully Hall
Ludwig van Beethoven: Variations in E flat major for Piano, Violin and Cello, op. 44 (*)
Felix Mendelssohn: Andante and Allegro brillant for Piano Four Hands, op. 92 (#) – Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 2 in D major, op. 58 (#) – Quintet No. 2 for 2 Violins, 2 Violas and Cello in B flat major, Op. 87
Fryderyk Chopin: Ballade No. 3 in A flat, op. 47
Paul Huang, Sean Lee (*) (violin), Matthew Lipman, Paul Neubauer (viola), Paul Watkins (cello), Huw Watkins (#), Orion Weiss (piano)
Two recent visits to Chamber Music Society (CMS) events devoted largely to music of Mendelssohn made me depart its venue, Alice Tully Hall ,with a very positive impressions and for more than just one reason. It is difficult to expect from an institution as august the CMS to present several dozen programs each season for almost a half a century and remain fresh in both its approach and presentation, yet it seems that it is exactly what happens. I have a feeling that an injection of “fresh blood” in form a slew of young, enormously talented artists rejuvenated this institution and provides a level of performances that could hardly wish to be improved. The programs, judging from the pair I heard, are also well planned and thought-out even though sometimes finding a context seems a little pushed as in case of solo compositions of Chopin or Schumann or even a Beethoven Variations in E flat for piano trio. Of course the case can be made, as the curators often try, that Mendelssohn was one of the first major composers to honor Beethoven with compositions reflective of Master’s style and Chopin’s place in the program could be attributed to two composer’s meeting and Mendelssohn being richly impressed with his year younger colleague. The same ever so slight critical observation cane be leveled in regard to the second of two programs in which a few of less joyous compositions of Mendelssohn were offered in context of Schumann and Bach. But is also my long held belief that sometimes it is completely acceptable to program seemingly unrelated works without a necessity of looking too hard for the context that may tie them together.
What I found equally important more was that the two programs, one offered on a week night the other on Sunday, were very well attended which permits one to be optimistic that the venerable CMS is on more than one right track.
The first half of the “Joyous Mendelssohn” program consisted of Beethoven Variations which were followed by two Mendelssohn works. Beethoven featured pianist Orion Weiss, who was assisted by two excellent string players: violinist Sean Lee and Paul Watkins. Weiss belongs to that new 30-something generation of young, versatile and multitalented pianists who seem to play everything they touch well and are first and foremost musicians rather than virtuosos. But virtuosity they don’t lack as it was demonstrated in Beethoven and later in Mendelssohn which he performed with Huw Watkins, another excellent pianist that evening. Beethoven’s Variations belongs to the group of composition which would hardly qualify for “top shelf”; it’s a little slight and superficial but it still shows mastery, charm and wit: perhaps those qualities made the planners of the program to chose it and juxtapose Mendelssohn’s own mastery and charm, the qualities with which he would tower over his contemporaries.
Not often performed Andante and Allegro brilliant for piano four hands (1841) has an interesting history. It was written as a wedding present for Clara and Robert Schumann when the two were finally able to marry. Mendelssohn was very supportive of the two during the turbulent times that accompanied Robert and Clara courtship. Felix arranged for a concert at the Leipzig’s Gewandhaus during which he conducted Robert’s First Symphony, had Clara play solos by Scarlatti, Chopin, Thalberg and Schumann and then Clara and Felix were to play the newly composed Andante and Allegro Brillant. What a concert it must have been! Here fortunately we heard an exquisitely executed and exhilarating performance by Mr. Weiss and Mr. Watkins. A thought came to my mind about Mendelssohn’s piano writing: not the first time it occurred to me, that there’s in his piano music a scant amount of repertory that is accessible to less advanced players. Almost all classical composers have in their œuvre works that are relatively easier to play. It is rarely so with Mendelssohn: his music seems to operate with the same high voltage, same high technical demands and the same perfection. And it makes a little difference if it is a solo piece or piano part in the trio or sonata: same difficulty, same burden for the pianist.
Huw and Paul are brothers but that alone was not the reason for their superb rendition of Mendelssohn Sonata in D Major. Paul Watkins, cellist, conductor, incomparable chamber musician, for all those who still don’t know about it, rejuvenated with his presence the venerable Emerson Quartet whose cellist he became in 2013. He and his brother gave us bracing, invigorating performance of a work that bubbles and flights in the outer movements but turns a little darker in the Adagio: that movement is a combination of a chorale and cello recitative reminding more than one listener of a Jewish liturgical hymn.
Mr. Weiss came back after the intermission with a perfectly acceptable if not very individualistic reading of Chopin Ballade in A flat major. If anything was lacking it would be a sense of a true narration that should also accompany its implied passion.
Finally another sunny, joyful side of Mendelssohn, his Quintet No. 2 which was the only second work in this genre. If this one, also in four movements, sounds a tad more mature than its predecessor, one in A major (from 1826), it is only a minimal difference. For this concert only enforced my other long hold observation that talking about this composer one has to eschew a typical desire to divide his creativity to periods. To my ears there is not too easy to detect seems “an early” Mendelssohn. If the 17 old youngster is able write the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, geographically speaking the only progress that can occur would be from the peaks of Alps to the peaks of Himalayas.
This performance of Quintet in B flat brought to the stage young Paul Huang as a leader of the group. The word “leader” seems appropriate because similarly to the earlier Octet in E flat Major, throughout the length of composition the violin has a decidedly leading role. Huang in last few seasons fashioned for himself an enviable role as one of the most promising, refined, intelligent young violinists around.
It is with the influx of such young artists as Huang, Sean Lee, Matthew Lipman, or Danbi Mi and Janos Koranyi or pianists such as Michael Brown and Juho Pohjonen that the Chamber Music Society entered a new phase of not only absorbing, stimulating, invigorating programming but perhaps even more so the performances that alone should attract the wide audiences. To the following program “Mendelssohn’s Sorrows” I shall come back in my follow-up on CMS.