Chamber Music Society brings a refining fire to artful Kreutzer program 

Wed Oct 31, 2018 at 1:25 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Calidore String Quartet performed music of Beethoven and Janáček Tuesday night at the Harris Theater.

The works presented in the “Kreutzer Connection” concert by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Tuesday night at the Harris Theater made such a logical and complementary program that one wonders why such a mix hasn’t been done more often.

Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766-1831) was the fulcrum, an acclaimed violinist of the early 19th century who is better known to history for the works his name became attached to rather than his own music or accomplishments.

Beethoven dedicated his most epic violin sonata to Kreutzer, a work that bears his name. And Leo Tolstoy wrote a short story, The Kreutzer Sonata, which took literary inspiration from Beethoven’s Op. 47. The tragic love triangle of Tolstoy’s tale in turn inspired Leoš Janáček’s String Quartet No. 1, also titled “The Kreutzer Sonata.”

Clever as the interconnected thread was, the outstanding performances by youthful members of the CMS roster kept audience attention focused on the music.

The Calidore String Quartet led off the evening with Beethoven’s Quartet in F minor, Op. 95. The most concise of Beethoven’s fifteen essays in the genre is also the only quartet he personally titled, and “Serioso” certainly describes this music.

From the bristling attack on the harsh opening motif, the Calidore musicians were clearly in synch with the grim sobriety and mercurial drama of this score. Yet the players also brought consistent tonal refinement, as with the mellow Old World grace of the Allegretto, rendered with impeccable taste and balancing. The segue into the more unsettled middle section was fluently handled and the reprise of the opening section brought back with an even greater sense of yearning.

The players brought daunting intensity to the conflict of the final movement with a dervish burst of virtuosity at the coda, yet without the music ever feeling inflated or out of period. This was world-class Beethoven, exquisitely performed.

The Calidore performance of Janáček’s First Quartet was just as inspired. The Czech composer clearly identified with Tolstoy’s doomed heroine, trapped in a loveless marriage, whose love affair with a dashing young violinist leads to tragedy.

The musicians conveyed the operatic quality and emotional danger of the music, as with the arresting sting of the viola in the opening movement. The off-center polka rhythms of the second movement were jarringly upended by buzzing harmonics, and even the impassioned slow movement spins out into bursts of aggressive violence. 

As with the Beethoven quartet, so accomplished and communicative was this Janáček performance that one had the rare experience of seeming to encounter the music itself without intermediaries. First violinist Jeffrey Myers was especially fine, bringing an almost vocal quality to his solo flights.

In between the two quartets, pianist Juho Pohjonen provided timbral and stylistic contrast with Sergei Prokofiev’s Sarcasms.

Composed while Prokofiev was still a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, this set of five iconoclastic piano sketches is aptly named for its abrupt and sardonic qualities. Though the subversive elements seem to personify Prokofiev in his enfant terrible mode, after a century of aural assaults, Sarcasms sounds rather mild and almost quaint today. 

Pohjonen showed a keen grasp of the composer’s idiom, conveying all the spiky outbursts, frantic moto perpetuos and elliptical lyric fragments with concentrated focus and a striking range of dynamics and tonal hues. The Finnish pianist’s kitten-on-the-keys touch in the final item was especially delightful.

The largest work of the evening was the aforementioned “Kreutzer” Violin Sonata in A major of Beethoven, performed by Angelo Xiang Yu and Pohjonen.

The two musicians were impressively well-matched, each bringing a full-blooded vitality and poetic sensibility to this music. Rarely will one hear such a finely layered welding of dramatic fire and expressive elegance as that served up by Yu, as with his seamless easing into the lyrical passages from the main theme.

Pohjonen’s poised keyboard work was consistently impressive and both players brought out the light caprice,  quirky bravura and interior eloquence of the Allegretto’s variations. The final movement went with ample driving energy, yet also with a quicksilver quality that kept the music in scale.

Yu preceded the Beethoven sonata with a brief aperitif by Kreutzer himself. His Caprice No. 35 in E flat for solo violin doesn’t offer Paganini’s brand of fiddle fireworks, but Kreutzer’s unprepossessing little march was thrown off by Yu with a firm bow arm and jaunty vigor.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center performs Bach’s complete Brandenburg Concertos 7:30 p.m. December 20 at the Harris Theater.

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