Richardson — One cannot help but be impressed by the consistently high quality of Chamber Music International’s choice of performers and programming. Most of the performers at the season-closing program at St. Barnabas Presbyterian Church had local connections, and assembling a more capable group of musicians for the music programmed would be difficult to imagine.
The first piece on the program, the rarely heard Flute Quartet No. 1 in D major, K285, was a wise choice to begin a weighty concert. The work is the product of a commission by amateur flutist Ferdinand De Jean in 1777 while Mozart was in his early 20s. This piece is plentiful in tuneful melody but perhaps shows only a glimpse of the composer’s great brilliance. As one can expect from a work commissioned by a flutist, the lead part is given the lion’s share of interesting material. However, the ensemble, led by flutist James Scott, chose to integrate the flute into a sound more resembling a string quartet. Given the very live nature of the acoustics of the St. Barnabas sanctuary, this was not a particularly easy task but a prudent decision as the flute’s timbre could readily pierce through the velvet sound of the accompanying strings if not careful.
The only unsatisfying moments came with the unusual second movement of this work. Mozart moves from a bright, wistful D major to an introspective B minor Adagio, an atypical contrast at this point in music history. While the ensemble kept to a rather brisk tempo for this slow movement (much in line with period practice), a bit more flexibility would have set off a world of effectual emotion. Through perfectly mournful melody and harmonic tension, a metronomic pace was maintained. This was no more invasive to musical sense than at the end of the movement where poignant silences are written as a way of introducing the final movement. This stroke of genius on Mozart’s part was treated apologetically as though the silences would suffocate the audience rather than allow them breathless anticipation.
In the third movement, more than capable playing with sensitivity to the tossing about of melodic material gave us a satisfying close.
At this point, I must confess my undying love for Debussy, whose music is perfectly paired with Mozart. The logical structures of his music, the subtle and intelligent planning of dense harmonic dissonances, the pure ecstasy of his coloristic orchestrations: It is impossible to overstate the significance of his music! And with this evening’s evocative performance of the simply gorgeous Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp, I am renewed in my affection for his music.
In this piece, we do not hear the Debussy of Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune or even the Préludes for piano. Instead we hear the sound of various exotic spices both individually and wafting together. He uses carefully controlled changes in harmony and timber to produce the structure rather than rely on melodic content. This leaves the performers with a large amount of responsibility to adequately display the delicate mix of hues. Scott, along with violist Susan Dubois and Jaymee Haefner on the harp, did not disappoint. Of particular note was Dubois’ amazing flexibility of timbre paired with impeccable intonation. This work is a staple of the violist’s repertoire but is rarely given the tasteful panache we heard from Dubois. At one instant she had a dark and rich sound when supported by the harp and at the next a more hollow sound when interacting with the flute.
Throughout the piece, an alert and intentional balance between the three instruments made quite an impression. However, in the middle of a deliciously beautiful ascent to the quiet end of the first movement, a cellphone shattered the effect. One could almost imagine a collective, nearly audible sigh of disappointment in the audience.
After what seemed like a lengthy intermission, the meatiest portion of the program was presented in Brahms’ String Sextet No.2 in G major, Op.36. Although it is one of the great masterworks of the 19th century, this work is not played nearly enough outside the academic world. Perhaps it is neglected because of its refusal to fit comfortably into the genre of chamber music. Indeed, there is plenty of symphonic writing in this work, but occasions of pure chamber music make regular appearances. Unfortunately, a decidedly heavy-handed and symphonic approach by the ensemble resulted in sonic exhaustion by the end of the first movement.
Disagreements regarding intonation were a regular feature of the performance but were not as troubling as the lack of a musical cohesiveness. The conveying of the traditional structure Brahms favored in his large-scale compositions was missing for the most part. This was because of the absence of the tight-knit, unified plan for each movement as one expects in chamber music performance. Admittedly, this is a colossal task to ask of six individual musicians, which included Jun Iwasaki and Felix Olschofka on violin, Veronika Vassileva along with Dubois on viola, and Ko Iwasaki together with Eugene Osadchy on cello.
At the sounding of the last notes just a few seconds before 10 p.m., the overall impression was one of relief. While a lengthy concert is not necessarily a negative, spending the last half of a long performance with an emotionally and intellectually taxing work was a bit fatiguing. However, given that the drive home was spent recalling the beautiful performance of the Debussy, all is forgiven.