Hamelin and friends look back with Celebrity Series chamber feast

May 3, 2014 at 2:26 pm

By David Wright

Clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein joined pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin and violinist Anthony Marwood Friday night at Jordan Hall for the Celebrity Series.

For its 75th birthday, the Celebrity Series of Boston received a rare present from pianist Marc-André Hamelin Friday night: a chance to relive a glorious moment in its youth.

In 1941, the Celebrity Series presented pianist and composer Béla Bartók, violinist Joseph Szigeti, and clarinetist Benny Goodman in a program that included the Boston premiere of Bartók’s Contrasts, composed for the group.

Last Friday, pianist Hamelin, violinist Anthony Marwood, and clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein played a memorable program of 20th-century classics in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, including not only Contrasts but two other items from that historic 1941 concert, both by Debussy: the Violin Sonata and the Première Rapsodie for clarinet and piano.

It made for a swell party as the Celebrity Series neared the end of its 75th anniversary season, during which it had already presented pianist Hamelin two times, playing solo and with pianist Emanuel Ax.

As an appetizer to the 20th-cntury feast, Hamelin and Marwood gave a vigorous performance of an 1827 piece that was plenty advanced for its time, Schubert’s Rondo in B minor, D. 895. This Hungarian-flavored item was one of the few Schubert chamber works published in the composer’s lifetime, but one wonders how many copies the publisher was able to sell, considering the music’s daring modulations, inscrutable starts and stops, and most of all heavy technical demands on both violinist and pianist.

The players went at it with admirable energy and imagination, if not quite the attention to detail and balance that they would show later in the evening. One wondered if the fact that Hamelin’s score wouldn’t lie open on the music rack, but had to be held open by the page turner, was an indication of how much rehearsal time this piece had received.

Debussy’s Première Rapsodie —a richly-imagined mélange of high and low, fast and slow, sweet and sour, buttery legato and chattering staccato–was composed in 1909 as an examination piece for the Paris Conservatoire, and clarinetists have been bringing it to auditions ever since.

The Belarus-born, Israel-raised clarinetist Fiterstein, substituting on short notice for the injured Martin Fröst, passed Friday’s audition with ease, his low notes so big and round they seemed to envelop one’s ears, and his subtle gradations of tone used to deeply expressive effect. Not for the last time that evening, Hamelin was a discreet partner at the piano, helping to weave the piece’s many moods while keeping the spotlight on the other player.

Stravinsky made a little suite of five numbers from L’histoire du soldat, arranged for piano, violin, and clarinet, as a present for the clarinet-playing benefactor who had bankrolled the production during the hard times of World War I. The suite has encountered criticism from at least one Stravinsky biographer, saying L’histoire just isn’t L’histoire without the threadbare, street-band sound of its original, piano-less ensemble of seven instruments.

However, the piano is an accomplished mimic, and on Friday night Hamelin did his best to tootle and thump like the original woodwinds, brass, and drums.

Equally characteristic of L’histoire is the dessicated, sarcastic sound of the Devil’s violin. Marwood got that just right in this performance, although some relief from all the scritching and scratching would have been welcome now and then, as when the Princess was dancing her tango and waltz in the fourth movement.

Though made for a clarinetist, this arrangement didn’t seem to feature that instrument much—unless Fiterstein was playing conservatively in a part he hadn’t had much time to prepare.

He had no such problem in Poulenc’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, a repertoire staple that is just a phone call away for most players of the instrument. He and Hamelin took the first movement fast and the finale faster, without any blurring of detail or neglect of the long phrase. At the finale’s blazing tempo, the clarity of the clarinet’s staccato sixteenth notes was amazing.

But the high point of this performance was the slow middle movement, a tender dialogue between two players richly gifted in expressive timing, tone color, and rubato. Even in the most testing situations, playing softly near the top of his instrument’s range, Fiterstein phrased exquisitely.

If one were wondering whether the aggressive tone of Marwood’s Schubert and Stravinsky performances was all the violinist had to offer, all doubts were dispelled by the liquid opening notes of Debussy’s Sonata in G minor. Marwood drew a silken thread of violin sound through a series of imaginative adventures characterized by constant, subtle shifts in the violin-piano balance that gave the music extra depth and dimension.

In the capricious second movement—not exactly a scherzo nor a slow movement, but a kind of free fantasy—the performers slipped seamlessly from Golliwogg-like hijinks into soulful avowals and back again. Marwood flashed his scales brilliantly in the finale, but mostly the two players artfully held back the tempo and dynamics, the better to pounce with the movement’s brief, scintillating coda.

Contrasts is Bartók’s only chamber work with a wind instrument, and he might not have composed this one had not Szigeti and Goodman conspired to commission it from him. Bartók never explained the title, but speculation centers on the heterogeneity of the three instruments, and the composer’s decision to exploit the differences rather than try to minimize them.

The ensemble stepped out smartly in the first movement’s verbunkos (recruiting) march, making the most, as in Schubert’s Rondo, of its dramatic starts and stops. In music that might tempt a clarinetist to play choppily, Fiterstein sounded uncommonly full-toned and fluid.

Fiterstein also dazzled in the clarinet’s solo cadenza, as did Marwood in a similar moment in the third movement. The musical reason for these solo digressions may not have been evident, but the real-life reason was: Goodman and Szigeti had requested them. In any case, Friday’s artists did them proud.

Szigeti and Goodman had asked Bartók for two up-tempo movements to fit on the two sides of a phonograph record, but the composer insisted on including a central slow movement, a classic Bartókian “night music” featuring an impassioned violin-clarinet dialogue against a background of nocturnal sounds. With delicate yet colorful playing, Friday night’s performance cast a spell.

The last movement, far from a conventional fast finale, had a marvelous variety of incident and mood, starting with Marwood sawing diabolical tritones on the open strings of a mistuned violin (shades of L’histoire and Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre). The fast dance in syncopated Bulgarian rhythm hinted at klezmer-style licks for the clarinet, while Hamelin wove a sensuous mood in the slow interlude, and muted violin and soft, deep clarinet created yet another sound-world after that. The movement closed fast and furious, to cheers from the audience.

The players returned to the stage for what was literally an encore: a repeat performance of the brief, frenetic “Devil’s Dance” that closed the L’histoire suite. Call it a victory lap for an ensemble that had to reconstitute itself just days before the concert.

The next music presentation by Celebrity Series of Boston will be the Mark Morris Dance Group with the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra and Chorus in Mozart’s arrangement of Handel’s Acis and Galatea, 7:30 p.m. May 15, 8 p.m. May 16 and 17, and 3 p.m. May 18. citicenter.org; 866-348-9738.

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