Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center uncovers early 20th-century rarities

October 28, 2013 at 2:44 pm

By David Wright

Oboist James Austin Smith was heard in music of Bliss and Britten in the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s concert Sunday afternoon at the Gardner Museum.

For an hour and a half Sunday afternoon, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum hosted a “fringe festival” of European chamber music, as artists from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center ventured beyond classical music’s geographical centers to make an enthusiastic case for works by English, Polish and Czech composers.

Furthermore, most of the composers represented—Arthur Bliss, Karol Szymanowski, Josef Suk—exist on the fringe of consciousness for most classical music audiences.  Benjamin Britten was the celebrity on the bill, and it must be said that his Phantasy Quartet for Oboe, Violin, Viola, and Cello, Op. 2, composed when he was all of 19 years old, left no doubt as to why.

Still, as performed by members of CMS’s younger generation (with violist Paul Neubauer as the veteran in the room), all the works on the program proved to be attractive, distinctive, and reason enough to spend a perfect fall afternoon indoors.

Before performing the Britten piece, oboist James Austin Smith spoke in tribute to the composer in his centennial year—Britten was born November 22, 1913—and in gratitude for his notable compositions featuring the oboe.  Smith might have gone on to mention the influential English oboist and teacher Leon Goosens (1897-1988), who seems to be the godfather of half the oboe repertoire, including not just Britten’s Phantasy Quartet but the work that led off the program, Bliss’s Quintet for Oboe and Strings.

The year 1927 found Bliss working on the fringe of modernism, attracted to the innovations of Ravel and Les Six while operating in a conservative English environment where the influential critic Ernest Newman could heap scorn on Vaughan Williams for “coquetting with the French idiom.”

Well, Bliss went right ahead and coquetted in his Quintet, but didn’t neglect the Elgarian roast beef, either.  Sunday’s performers—Smith plus violinists Nicolas Dautricourt and Benjamin Beilman, violist Neubauer, and cellist Mihai Marica—mostly emphasized the beefy side, folding the oboe into the robust string-quartet sonority that amply filled the compact, cube-shaped space of the museum’s Calderwood Hall.

The first movement’s wayward character—rambling themes, dainty staccato alternating with stomping marcato—was  vividly realized, and when it came to Bliss’s spicy dissonances, the players were happy to shake on a little extra.

The oboe came gently to the fore in the Andante con moto, a hybrid of Ravel-style tenderness and English open-air folk melody.  Smith played with the kind of discretion, sweetness, and shapely tone that Goosens is said to have been famous for.

According to the score, the Vivace finale quoted an Irish jig, but Sunday’s group took it at a furious presto, more like a tarantella.  Flying staccato and sudden forte outbursts, executed with both passion and precision, generated a high—one might almost say un-English—level of excitement.

Perhaps that finale tempo was in anticipation of the next work, Szymanowski’s Nocturne and Tarantella for violin and piano, Op. 28.  Despite the title, both movements featured vigorous dance themes, the difference being that in the first the Spanish-style dance coalesced out of a distant song heard through a mist of muted violin and una corda piano, while the Italian tarantella was all fire all the way.

Violinist Beilman and pianist Gloria Chien conjured the nocturnal mists well, but their heart seemed to be in the fast and loud parts, especially the tarantella, which would have benefited from more mood contrast during its pullback moments.  Still, one had to admire the players’ energy and agility, especially Beilman’s fast harmonics and left-hand pizzicato.

The program then shifted from an upfront virtuoso showpiece to the nuanced world of Benjamin Britten’s imagination, which was already recognizable in the very early, one-movement Phantasy Quartet.  In it Britten borrowed the instrumentation of Mozart’s Oboe Quartet, the free form of an early English phantasy or “fancy” for viols, and even Boccherini’s idea of a band approaching (crescendo) at the beginning and marching away (diminuendo) at the end, and recast all these concepts in his own distinctive voice.

Oboist Smith was less shy about his first-among-equals status here than in the Bliss, pressing forward with a woodier, firm-centered tone as his colleagues accelerated the march rhythm, and blossoming into florid recitative during the piece’s central interlude.  Alert to Britten’s higher level of instrumental interplay and subtlety of mood, the ensemble gave this 20th-century master his full due.

At 17, Josef Suk, star pupil and future son-in-law of Dvořák, was only two years younger than the Britten of the Phantasy Quartet when he composed his Piano Quartet in A minor, Op. 1, in 1891, but this early work caught the distinguished composer, violinist, and quartet leader at an awkward stage in his development.

The ensemble of Chien, Beilman, Neubauer, and Marica, acknowledging at last the hall’s in-the-round seating, faced each other in a circle, the better perhaps to squeeze some real-life juice out of the student composer’s somewhat self-conscious score.  They dove into Suk’s none-too-inspired themes with gusto, and gave loving attention to the all-too-obvious seams in the first movement’s sonata form.

In Romantic chamber music, the piano, when present, tends to take the lead, and pianist Chien accepted that role in Suk’s Adagio, maintaining eye contact and seeming to breathe with the other players as the music became more concerto-like.  If the movement left little impression on the listener, that was hardly the fault of this committed and attentive performance.

In the finale, freed from formal constraints, the young Suk let his imagination fly more spontaneously, and gave Sunday’s young performers more to work with.  The piano’s dominance continued, as Chien introduced the energetic dance theme virtually by herself, and went on to execute, among other things, some salty staccato passages à la Rachmaninoff.   If the fast coda was a rather conventional exercise, the players nevertheless gave it their all.

The next event in the Gardner Museum’s Sunday Concert Series is New York Festival of Song, 1:30 p.m. Nov. 4.; 617-278-5156.

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