Classical Concert Review: Boston Artists Ensemble — Chamber Music at its Finest

By Aaron Keebaugh

The Boston Artists Ensemble found the tenderness and understated grace of Robert Schumann’s Piano Trio No. 2.

Boston Artists Ensemble in action last Sunday afternoon. Photo: Diane Fassino.

For Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann, chamber music was as much an expression of love and commitment as an extension of a classic art form.

Mendelssohn presented his Piano Trio No. 2 to his sister, Fanny, on her birthday in 1846, only a few months before her death the following May. Schumann captured in music his abiding love for his wife Clara in his own Piano Trio No. 2 from 1847. Yet both are the work of composers in their respective primes, personal statements of vitality and solace given the tragedies both would face in the ensuing years.

If these scores relay such varied tensions, the Boston Artists Ensemble revealed their poignancy and fiery ebullience Sunday afternoon at St. Paul’s Church in Brookline.

Mendelssohn’s close connection with chamber music stemmed from childhood. His parents welcomed musicians into their home every Sunday for rehearsals and performances of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. The genre was so intensely personal that as an adult, Mendelssohn frequently turned to it to escape the strains of conducting as well as to assuage his grief over the deaths of friends and relatives.

His Piano Trio No. 2 bears an uncommon strength and vigor. While 19th and early-20th century critics had derided the orchestral-like textures of this score, the sweep and energy serve Mendelssohn’s sinuous style to heroic effect.

Sunday’s performance channeled that power, mystery, and all shades in between. Made up of BAE regulars and guests, the ensemble played with customary élan. Violinist Sharan Leventhal unfolded her lines with gleaming tone. Cellist Jonathan Miller provided dusky complement. And pianist Randall Hodgkinson brought precision and flair to match.

Their blend realized the full darkness from the opening Allegro energico. But there were searching moments as well. The Andante flowed congenially as Hodgkinson’s delicate harmonies provided gentle support to the silver-toned strings.

The musicians rendered the Scherzo’s mercurial twists and turns with zeal. Their subtle rubato brought the melodic arcs of the finale into sharp focus. The quotation of the “Old Hundredth” hymn, the heart of the movement, was reverent, and the players realized the closing statements to powerful, even frenzied effect.

The Schumann delivered the afternoon’s lyrical counterpart. The composer wrote his Piano Trio No. 2 in close succession to his first. And while he dedicated the latter to Clara, she favored the former, into which her husband encoded his affection. Warm and inviting, the score plays upon quotations from the “Intermezzo” from the composer’s Liederkreis, Op. 39 in a veiled symbol of the power Clara held over his heart.

The Boston Artists Ensemble found the work’s tenderness and understated grace. The opening movement frolicked while still carrying weight and intensity. The second was a journey from darkness to light, with strings and piano in thorough commitment.

More a waltz than traditional scherzo, the third movement lilted and soared. That energy carried into the finale in a vivid play between sensitivity and captivating fervency. In short, this was chamber music at its finest.

The Boston Artists Ensemble will repeat the program at Salem’s Hamilton Hall on November 18. I may just go hear it again.

Aaron Keebaugh has been a classical music critic in Boston since 2012. His work has been featured in the Musical Times, Corymbus, Boston Classical Review, Early Music America, and BBC Radio 3. A musicologist, he teaches at North Shore Community College in both Danvers and Lynn.

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