Fort Worth — On Feb. 17, The Chamber Music Society for Fort Worth presented a concert with an intriguing title: The Iron Fist in a Velvet Glove. I have to admit being as mystified by the title after the concert as I was before it began. I heard neither a velvet glove nor an iron fist. What I did hear in the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth was magnificent performances of three musical masterpieces. Two were by Beethoven, his Violin Sonata No. 9 and his rarely heard Serenade for String Trio Op. 8. The last selection was one of the top five piano quintets in the repertoire, the one by César Franck.
Well, now that I think about it, the Franck might qualify as the velvet glove. Rumor has it that the composer wrote it during an infatuation with one of his students and it is certainly an erotic work replete with harmonies borrowed from Wagner and “Frenchified” by Franck. It received a terrific performance by the assembled group of outstanding artists: violinists Gary Levinson and Felix Olschofka, violist Michael Klotz, cellist Tim Petrin and pianist Meng-Chieh Liu.
The Beethoven sonata is one that Levinson recorded, in a superb collection of all of the Beethoven sonatas, with his wife and musical partner, Daredjan “Baya” Kakouberi. Hearing him play it live was a different experience. In the first movement, he brought out the great contrasts of Beethoven’s music, from very slow to very fast and from lyrical to almost military. The sonata starts with the violin by itself and then alternates with the piano in a slow introduction. Liu perfectly matched Levinson’s musical inflections. Levinson had the opportunity to return the favor in the slow movement where the piano starts and the violin joins in. The pair took the last movement, marked presto, at quite a clip and brought out the triple lilt of the main tune. My only complaint was that Levinson’s pizzicati were difficult to hear at various times in the sonata, probably due to the acoustics of the room.
Beethoven’s Serenade for Violin, Viola, Cello in D Major, Op. 8, ended the first half. While all three voices are important, Levinson made the most of the more prominent violin part. Klotz is an amazing violist and the duet between violin and viola in the second adagio was truly beautiful, even though Beethoven is constantly interrupting it with little scherzi. Petrin’s cello was hard to hear in room — it spoke out better in the Franck — but did a fine job accompanying the duet. He also stood out with his variation in the theme and variation movement. The group matched up the march that both opens and closes the serenade to bring the work to a dramatic close.
I think that this was my favorite performance of Franck’s quintet in memory. In spite of its cyclic format, or maybe because of it, I have often felt like the piece wasn’t going anywhere, like a beautiful swimmer gracefully treading water. Not so on Saturday afternoon. Upon reflection, I think that most of the credit has to go to pianist Meng-Chieh Liu. He never overpowered the string players but carried them along with him on wave after wave of sound. Part of the reason for Liu’s effect is that Franck’s quintet is practically a concerto for the piano, which is not a surprise considering that he himself was a pianist and organist.
This is a work of extremes: of tempo, harmonic progressions and even dynamics. The five artists may have reached one too many very loud parts, but admittedly there are many in the piece as written, but they made the very soft sections shimmer with translucence. It was this contrast of loud and soft that was the engine of the performance, capturing the audience from start to finish.