Dallas — On Monday, the Dallas Chamber Music Society presented a concert by an ensemble from Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and subtitled “David Finckel and his Ensemble of Six.” Finckel was the cellist and he surrounded himself with four young hotshot players and a colleague as the second cello in the sextets. They were all amazing as individual players and even more impressive as a close knit ensemble.
The program opened with Mozart’s Quintet for Strings in C minor, K. 406. Next came a scorching performance of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) for String Sextet Op. 4. The program ended with Brahms’ Sextet No. 1 in B-flat Major for two violins, two violas and two cellos, Op. 18.
The players were violinists Sean Lee and Alexander Sitkovetsky, violists Matthew Lipman and Richard O’Neil, cellists Keith Robinson and David Finckel, who is the Co-Artistic Director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and leader of the sextet.
Finckel is quite a distinguished cellist. He was the first American pupil of Rostropovich, is on the faculty of The Juilliard School in Now York City, and was the cellist for 34 seasons with the award-winning Emerson String Quartet. Lee, Lipman and O’Neil were honored with Avery Fisher Career Grants. Robinson is the founding member of the Miami String Quartet. Sitkovetsky, born in Moscow, sports a lengthy list of orchestras for which he has appeared as a soloist, including a series of six sold-out concerts at Albert Hall with the Royal Philharmonic.
All of the players were quite different in playing styles. For example, the two cellists and two violinists were exact musical opposites, one more passionate and the other more reserved. However, all six came together to create a remarkably unified string sextet. Intonation and ensemble were absolutely precise. The interpretation was unified as well with excellent tempi and a wide range of dynamics. The style of the three composers was distinctly and scrupulously observed.
It is a challenge to write a review of such a definitive concert. Sentences full of adjectives are not interesting to read and, sometimes, appear to cancel each other out. Overall, this was a magnificent performance of three completely different pieces by six amazing artists and adjectives are certainly in order.
In the Mozart, we first heard the ability of the ensemble, which was present all evening, to achieve the difficult goal of hearing each of the players’ individual voice without any one of them sticking out. Tempi were excellent, especially in creating a gentle rocking motion in the second movement. The players used a minimal vibrato and a lighter touch than in what followed. Mozart uses a catchy tune for the finale and the players obviously enjoyed it.
The Schoenberg was the highlight of the concert. This piece is significant in music history because it is one of the last super chromatic late romantic compositions before the composer revolutionized musical composition by inventing the 12 tone system and founding, for better or for worse, what came to be known as the Second Viennese School. But to give him his due, hearing this magnificent piece you can completely understand that composers at the time had painted themselves into a corner of complexity. Schoenberg’s radical system of using 12 notes arranged into a new scale (to greatly oversimplify) seemed like a way out.
Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) is based on a romantic poem by Richard Dehmel. It is about a couple who have recently met and are involved romantically, walking in the moonlight. The woman says that she is carrying another man’s child from a previous relationship. He forgives her and promises that their love will transfigure the child into one conceived out of their union.
This was absolutely the best performance of this much-admired that I have ever heard. It was white hot and passionate, alternately foreboding, intense, peaceful and overwhelmingly beautiful. Lee, who was first violin in the Mozart, turned over his seat to Sitkovetsky, and what a wise decision that proved to be. Sitkovetsky, who deserves a black belt in violin playing, attacked the music with ferocity and his passion inspired the other five players.
Lee was back in the first violin seat for the Brahms. The violists also traded places. There is a lot of exposed music for the violists and these two were wonderful. Finckel also had a chance to shine. Once again, in the third movement (Scherzo) the players had fun, as the composer intended.
However, all the way through the entire sextet, the dynamic level rose to fortissimo quite often. In fact, the first fortissimo marking I could find in the score occurs at the trio of the third movement and there are a few in the last movement. As a general rule, Brahms frequently writes forte and sometimes piu forte but he uses fortissimo very judiciously in all of his compositions. Saving that very loud playing for where the composer intended adds a sense of arrival to the music when it occurs. Still, the players gave us a wonderful performance, only slightly marred by excessive dynamics.