Fort Worth — In spite of Brahms’ immense and enduring popularity with audiences, and his universal acclaim among scholars of music, the presentation of that composer’s String Quintet No. 2 on the same concert with his String Sextet No. 2 is a relatively rare event—and, in the case of the concert by the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth Saturday at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, rare and wonderful.
As fans and aficionados of the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth know, the Society’s season mixes distinguished guest ensembles from the international concert circuit with performances by a select group of musicians from across America who come to Fort Worth solely for periodic concerts on the society’s series.
Saturday’s concert belonged to the latter category, with the artistic director Gary Levinson, who is also the principal associate concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, leading as first violin; Yuriy Bekker, Belarussian-born concertmaster of the Charleston Symphony, joined the CMSFW ensemble for the first time as second violin. Richard Young, formerly of the Vermeer String Quartet and currently a member of the faculties of Northern Illinois University and the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, U.K., served as first viola; with Michael Klotz, artist-in-residence at Florida International University as second viola. Robert DeMaine, principal cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Allan Steele, principal cellist of the Fort Worth Symphony, rounded out the ensemble.
The music of Brahms is rife with beautiful moments; but he always valued musical structure and clean, logical emotion over sheer beauty of sound—or, for that matter, making things easy on the musicians. This ensemble brought an appropriately wide range of color as well as a continuous sense of emotional momentum, flawless virtuosity, and perfect balance. What emerged was not, of course, the resonant wave of sound a symphony orchestra creates, but instead an equally intense, varied, and often radiant sonority.
The String Quintet No. 2 immediately casts the spotlight on the cello, with cellist DeMaine pouring out a passionate opening theme against an agitated but perfectly controlled ensemble accompaniment. The second movement, mournful in mood with a stormy middle section, displayed the perfect precision of the ensemble in the beautifully timed closing passage. The passions and sorrow of the second movement retreated into the delicately spooky third movement, once again showing off the emotional and technical precision of the ensemble. And breathtaking ensemble work continued through the final movement, which begins as a gentle marriage of classical and folk-like elements before exploding into a final joyous peasant dance, with a tricky quickening of tempo at the coda.
Cellist Steele joined in for the Sextet No. 2, which, in spite of its larger ensemble, is a gentler and, one might argue, subtle work. After a fluid opening, rising gradually to full-fledged passion, the ensemble handled the persistent murmuring minor second pattern throughout the first movement masterfully. The second movement, with its Mendelssohn-esque delicacies, a little canon figure, and, two brief outbursts of real Scherzo fury found the ensemble once again in perfect form. The rich textures disappeared for the lean, lonely Adagio, with its almost agonized chromatic descending main theme, followed by the fourth movement, wherein the ensemble met Brahms’ merciless technical demands to create a relentlessly joyous finale.