Fort Worth — The Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth continues to amaze. Concerts feature fine artists and a combination of music that is familiar, or less well known, or even newly composed. On Saturday, in the Piano Pavilion of the Kimbell Art Museum, they even managed to present something that is familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.
Schubert’s “Trout” quintet, which ended the program, is for a slightly different group of instruments from the standard arrangement of string quartet and piano. The 22-year-old Schubert wrote parts for a violin, a viola, a cello and a contrabass. This last instrument rarely appears in the piano quintet configuration.
The nickname “Trout” comes from the fourth movement of the piece, which is a set of variations on one of Schubert’s own songs: “Die Forelle” (or “The Trout”).
Expectations were high with such fine artists playing and it did not disappoint. This was a stellar performance. It was played by Jon Nakamatsu, piano; Gary Levinson, violin (Senior Associate Concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony); Michael Klotz, viola; Carter Brey, cello (Principal Cellist of the New York Philharmonic); and Nicolas Tsolainos, double bass (Principal Double Bass of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra).
They gave a sparkling performance that bought the sunlight-infused bubbling stream to mind. This is one of Schubert’s merriest compositions and the obvious joy the quintet showed in playing it was as big a part of its success as was clean technique and precise intonation.
Since the concert featured a bass player, the program opened with a recently composed piece for violin and bass that was written for Levinson and his father, who was the principal bass in the New York Philharmonic for decades. Composer Behzad Ranjbaran (born in 1955) wrote Dance of Life for this unusual combination based on a poem by the Persian poet Hafiz, who lived in the late 1300’s.
Both Levinson and Tsolainos played the challenging music with technical expertise but more importantly excellent intonation. This is both a difficult and necessary task because the instruments can be as much as five octaves apart. Intonation is equally difficult when they are in unison because that brings the bass to the very top of its register. They gave the work a remarkable performance that should inspire composers to try their hand at the same combination.
Brey and Nakamatsu ended the first half with a stunning performance of the E minor cello sonata of Brahms. This is an introspective and melancholy piece of considerable beauty. Both cellist and pianist have obviously given the sonata a lot of thought, and probably played it with a great variety of other artists. That aside, the two appeared to have the same concept about the sonata and thus delivered an interpretively unified reading. Many in the audience let the music carry them along and there was a collective sigh at the end before the applause started.
It was good programming to have the intermission at this point. It cleared the palette for Schubert’s quintet.
On hearing “Trout” played, you have to wonder why composers don’t use this configuration more frequently. The substation of the bass for the second violin frees the cello to take its intended position of the tenor voice in the string ensemble. (The violin is the soprano, the viola the alto, the cello the tenor and the bass is, well, the bass.) Using a second cello in place of the bass, which is done now and then, creates a far different sound not intended by the composer. The bass sounds an octave below the written note and these pitches do not exist on the cello.
Schubert doesn’t take full advantage of the capabilities of the bass. By the time he wrote “Trout,” the great bass virtuoso Domenico Dragonetti was already famous. Called the Paganini of the bass, after the violin virtuoso who amazed audiences worldwide, he single handedly changed how composer thought about the instrument. It is idle speculation, but it is fun to think of what Schubert would have written had he come in contact with Dragonetti in a meaningful way. The bass is still largely ignored by composers as a solo instrument.
The piece that opened the program, Ranjbaran’s Dance of Life, is part of a movement, by composers and players alike, to reintroduce the instrument to concert audiences with an expanded repertoire.
But there is more for the instrument than we get to hear. There is a surprisingly large catalog of chamber music for the bass. The problem is that it isn’t played all that often. You can find a mindboggling list of such works here. Maybe CMSFW will invite more bass players to join them.