Fort Worth — The Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth appears to have serendipitously created a new chamber music performing group. This happened because Music Director Gary Levinson invites a group of exceptional players to join him playing works that are infrequently performed. As a result, there are enough familiar names on his ad hoc ensemble list that they play with the precision of an ensemble that plays together all the time. In a way, it is like a group of friends who get together in a living room to “jam” after dinner. This adds some exceptional spirit with a touch of familiarity that many similar touring groups lack without sacrificing any of the ensemble and interruptive coordination that is critical to fine performance of chamber music.
Such was the case on the afternoon of April 6, 2019.
The two works by Richard Strauss, his Violin Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 18, and his Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 13, made up the bulk of the program. Collaborative pianist Jon Nakamatsu did a star turn, as both have demanding piano parts. He caught a break with the other work on the program, Beethoven’s String Trio, Op. 9, No. 2, in that it was for violin, viola and cello—without the piano.
From the first note of the trio we were impressed with the rich sound produced by three excellent musicians—Levinson on violin, Michael Klotz on viola, and Edward Arron on cello—who play on superb instruments. Beethoven’s skill in distributing his music between the three instruments certainly helped. However, one aspect that was outstanding in this particular performance is the fact that Klotz’s lower range of his viola and the upper range of Aaron’s cello sound remarkably similar.
I have commented on the “cello-ness” of Klotz’s viola before but, in contrast with Aaron’s cello, this similarity was remarkably noticeable in the Beethoven trio. The musical handoffs between the two players were seamless. This effect was helped along by Beethoven’s use of the high register of the cello.
There was some minor intonation trouble in the first movement. But that soon vanished as the players became more accustomed to the acoustics of the packed auditorium of The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Also, this opening movement seems to have two openings. One is the “real” opening on the violin, fast and quiet. The other appears soon after the movement starts when he writes a cheerful forte theme for all three instruments.
By the time we arrived at the second movement, and the players had figured out the acoustical quirks of the hall; all of the rough edges vanished. In the third movement, the ensemble of the three players solidified as proven by the precise playing of both short notes and the coordination of ritards.
This trio was written early in Beethoven’s career at the end of what musicologists call his “first period.” Personally, I think that they are just over that line and that they are the beginnings of his more mature periods.
The program moved on to Richard Strauss’ early Violin Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 18, a virtuosic showpiece if ever there was one. When he wrote this sonata at the tender age of 24, Strauss was an excellent violinist and pianist so he made both parts equally difficult. However, both players tossed it off with èlan, delivering a marvelous performance, which was made all the more amazing by the fact that Nakamatsu didn’t already have it in his repertoire. But it was obvious that this sonata resides deep in Levinson’s DNA.
There was much to admire in this performance, but some things stood out. One was Levinson’s use of vibrato, lavishing it on some passages, tightening it on others and not using it all when that was appropriate.
You could easily say the same thing about Nakamatsu’s sensitive realization of the piano part. One thing that stood out was his restrained use of the sustaining pedal. Another noticeable ingredient was his careful attention of balance and not just between piano and violin. He also paid close attention to the balance between his hands, letting the one hand subordinate to the other depending on which was more important. Frequently we had three dynamic levels going on at the same time.
Another noticeable aspect of this performance is how the two musicians treated all of the filigree-like passages in much the same way as Chopin: enhanced and extended ornamentation rather than showoff technical extravaganzas.
Richard Strauss’ music also closed the program, represented by his early Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op. 13. He was only 19 years old when he wrote this piece and was under the influence of Brahms. That influence sticks out all over this score, both harmonically, formally, and even with the use of this Brahms-like ensemble.
Strauss used a four-movement construction. The first movement is both compact, in the Beethoven-like use of small and melodically unified units, yet expansive in concept. The composer had not written any his massive orchestral tone poems at this point but, in this piece, he appears to be stretching his symphonic legs. This was accented in this performance by the largeness of the players approach. But, especially in the first movement, they reached top volume levels long before they required by Strauss.
The second movement is very fast and light on its feet and the players enjoyed the ability to let loose. The third movement offers them some lush and slower music in which to revel. Wagnerian resolutions of suspensions and non-harmonic notes bound. In the finale, Beethoven’s influence comes through in his economical use motives. The last movement has a few false endings, but bringing such a large piece to its conclusion is a challenge best solved by compositional maturity.
While this quartet is hardly one of Strauss’ masterpieces, it does show the composer’s use of his studies of his direct predecessors without much of a look at the influences behind them. As Wordsworth so elegantly said in his poem “My Heart Leaps Up”: “the Child is the father of the Man."
So I was glad to have heard it, especially as played by such a fine ensemble.