Chamber Music Society delivers youthful Mozart, sublime Schubert

Thu Oct 24, 2019 at 2:09 pm

By Tim Sawyier

Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C major was performed by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Wednesday night at the Harris Theater. Painting by Gabor Melegh, 1827.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMSLC) opened its ninth season in residency at the Harris Theater Wednesday night with a program of string quintets. A superb roster drawn from the Society’s ranks framed a new work of Bruce Adolphe with elevated performances of two repertory staples.

The program opened with Mozart’s early String Quintet in B-flat Major, K. 174. This work was penned after the composer’s return to his dreaded hometown of Salzburg following an Italian tour in 1773, though any hard feelings Mozart may have had about this homecoming are banished from his congenial score.

The CMS fielded a youthful group with violinists Sean Lee and Arnaud Sussmann, violists Mark Holloway and Matthew Lipman, and cellist David Requiro, who delivered the teenage Mozart’s music with poise. The group highlighted the unexpected harmonic pivots of the opening Allegro moderato to excellent effect. The witty echoes of the Menuetto has a sly, flirtatious quality, and the jocular closing Allegro went with aplomb.

The highlight was the glowing Adagio. It opens with an ambiguous rising gesture in unison octaves, which sounds like it could be the germ of a simple melody, but is ultimately revealed as an accompaniment to a soaring aria in the first violin. The players held this suspense with each return of the opening material, and one could hear pre-echos of Countess Almaviva in Lee’s arioso playing.

The warmth and mirth of early Mozart was quickly dispelled  by the ensuing local premiere of Bruce Adolphe’s Are There Not a Thousand Forms of Sorrow, commissioned to celebrate CMS’s 50th anniversary. For this work cellist Clive Greensmith replaced violist Lipman to form a quintet of two violins, viola, and two cellos.

The work takes its title from a line in Ethan Canin’s A Doubter’s Almanac, and of its genesis Adolphe writes: “When I began composing the quintet in 2016, the general mood in America was more optimistic than now. But then, after the presidential election, there was a swift series of assaults from the American government: attacks on freedom of speech, the free press, people of color, women, religious minorities, immigrants, the LGBT community, people with disabilities, students, the middle class, the poor, foreigners, and other groups…suddenly the sorrows seemed countless and the future bleak.” 

That’s one view of recent history, but Adolphe’s opus is subtler than his politics. The unbroken seventeen minutes of Are There Not a Thousand Forms of Sorrow plumb a spectrum of despair, which is effective with or without knowledge of its political inspiration. While tooth-gnashing bleakness largely prevails, Adolphe also captures the nervy elements of anguish, as well as its potentially reflective aspects, the latter most poignantly in a tender duet for the two cellos. The music manages to feel effectively varied though its overall tenor is uniform, answering its title question in the affirmative.

The second half was devoted to Schubert’s Quintet in C Major, the composer’s final chamber work and a gem of the repertoire. After the Adolphe, Holloway swapped out for Lipman, who along with Lee, Greensmith, Requiro, and Sussmann now in the first violin seat, gave rarified treatment to Schubert’s remarkable chamber swan-song.

The players deftly charted the free rein Schubert allowed his endless melodic imagination in the opening Allegro ma non troppo. In this performance, there was always a firm sense of the music coming from somewhere and having a destination, essential for such a broad and intricate canvas. The second theme was delicate and ennobled in its many returns, the iteration between Greensmith and Lipman particularly luminous.

In the Adagio, the CMS musicians captured Schubert’s ineffable sense of simultaneous motion and stasis. The movement’s turbulent episodes contrasted jarringly with its prevailing placidity. The Scherzo—a vigorous Landler—was grounded in the throaty tones of the cello pair, the ambiguous slower trio put across with inward sheen and reflection.

The final gypsy-infused Allegretto went with abandon, and the players lent a beguiling and appropriate Viennese inflection to its magnanimous second theme. Here as throughout the accomplished performance, Sussmann’s playing was dynamic and sensitive, matched with his equally accomplished colleagues.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center returns to the Harris Theater Friday December 20 at 7:30 p.m. for its annual presentation of the complete Bach Brandenburg Concertos.

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