Classical Concert Review: Worcester Chamber Music Society’s “Beginnings and Endings”

The first concert of the Worcester Chamber Music Society augured a promising start for the ensemble’s seventh season.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

The Worcester Chamber Music Society — the season is off to a promising start.

The 2012–13 season of the Worcester Chamber Music Society (WCMS) opened on Friday night with the first of a two-concert series featuring early works by Haydn and Beethoven, and concluding with Schubert’s late, great String Quintet in C. Titled “Beginnings and Endings,” the first concert, played before a well-sized, enthusiastic audience at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Harvard, MA, augured a promising start for the ensemble’s seventh season.

Of the “beginning” pieces on the program, the least familiar was surely Haydn’s G major Flute Quartet (op. 5, no. 2). Published in Amsterdam in the late 1760s, it is one of a set of six pieces for flute, violin, viola, and cello, four of which have since been deemed “inauthentic”—or not-actually-by-Haydn—by scholars. The remaining two (of which the G major is the second), while generally agreed to have come from to the pen of the composer they’re attributed to, only exist on printing plates: no manuscript of them has yet been found among Haydn’s papers. All six, though, are unified by a similar formal pattern of fast, outer movements framing a minuet and a slow movement and are characterized by the limpid gestures typical of the Classical galant style.

Friday’s performance of the Quartet was a bit scrappy in the outer movements, but scrappiness in Haydn isn’t always a bad thing: in this context, it leant a rustic charm to the faster music that was both appropriate (Haydn had a long interest in and regularly drew upon folk music) and enlivening. The highlight of the performance, though, was the rhapsodic, beautifully shaped duet between flautist Tracy Kraus and violist Mark Berger in the slow third movement, which glowed with lyrical warmth and was gently supported by violinist Rohan Gregory and cellist Joshua Gordon’s accompanimental patterns.

If the Haydn was big on charm, Beethoven’s first E-flat major piano trio, as played by pianist Ian Watson, violinist Krista Buckland Reiser, and cellist David Russell, was big on electrifying drama. Beethoven’s early scores often get a bad rap for being more imitative than original, even though that’s a ridiculous charge, as this piece (and Friday’s performance of it) demonstrates: it holds all the characteristics of Beethoven’s later styles, and in droves. The expressive weight of its four movements is highly Classical, though, with two expansive opening movements followed by two in a much lighter vein, and this is a feature of Beethoven’s music that shifted dramatically within about a decade of the Trio’s premiere in 1795.

On Friday Ms. Buckland Reiser, Mr. Russell, and Mr. Watson pulled out all the stops, with a taut, energized reading of the first movement and a straightforward, emotionally charged take on the slow second. There was an abundance of good humor in the final rondo, which—in a bit of technical showing off—incorporates themes from each of the previous movements (including an extended augmentation of the third movement scherzo) alongside a quirky, leaping gesture. As an ensemble, the trio was very well matched in their articulations—their staccato in the second theme of the first movement, for instance, was particularly notable—though a few balance issues persisted throughout the piece, mainly owing to the resonance of the keyboard: the lid could have been on short stick (it was on full) and the instrument would still have been plenty audible in the performance space.

WCMS — relaxing on the couch.

After intermission came Schubert’s C major Quintet. Composed in a fit of compositional activity just months before his death in 1828, it is for all intents and purposes a symphony for string ensemble and often sounded like one on Friday. It’s also a long piece (Schumann’s comment on late Schubert’s “heavenly length” applies to the Quintet as much as it does to the Ninth Symphony and B-flat major Piano Sonata) with lots of notes, and there were some moments in the performance when energy seemed to flag a bit, especially towards the end. Even so, the expressive temperature of the group’s playing was spot-on.

While Beethoven’s late style is characterized by jarring abutments of contrasting musical textures, dynamics, and ideas, Schubert’s later works couch similar juxtapositions in a strong, lyrical voice. Friday’s performance emphasized the lyrical aspect, especially in the slow, second movement. The playing here had a particularly haunting focus to it that cast a spell one hopes to—but doesn’t always—encounter in performances of this music. The duet between Ms. Buckland Reiser and Mr. Gordon in the turbulent middle section was fiery and passionate, while the rest of the ensemble (Mr. Berger covering the second violin part, artistic director Peter Sulski on viola, and Mr. Russell taking the second cello part) provided an accompaniment of striking intensity.

The lengthy opening movement was nicely shaped (though it took a little while for some of the initial tonal shifts to settle), as was the bipolar scherzo, with its motoric outer sections framing a spare, fragile Trio. In the final rondo, with its echoes of Beethoven, the ensemble did a particularly fine job of emphasizing the various motivic strands that connect the Quintet’s several movements. Throughout, there was an heroic quality to the performance that more than matched the Herculean character of the music.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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