Some musicians have the rare ability of sending the music they play right to the hearts of their audience. The Boston Chamber Music Society musicians who performed Sunday afternoon in Sanders Theater did just that. How did they do it? Was it their special level of coordination with one another? Was it some deeply shared insight into the music? Was it Marcus Thompson’s initiative of proposing the theme of “Darkness and Deliverance” as a way of probing the scores? Guest artists, pianist Benjamin Hochman and cellist Nicholas Canellakis, joined Jennifer Frautschi and Marcus Thompson seamlessly, communicating and interacting as if they had been playing together for years, conveying layers of unsuspected depth.
The program comprised three gems not often performed, two in C minor, and one nominally in C-sharp minor. Spanning three centuries, all three works marked a compositional point of no return, at the same time outward-looking and expressively expansive. And yes, as performed on Sunday by the BCMS and guests, they delivered gripping darkness and deliverance.
In his dedication to Count von Browne, Beethoven wrote of his Op. 9 string trios “l’auteur aurait la satisfaction…de presenter…la meilleure de ses oeuvres.” No. 3, in C Minor, is the most expressively dramatic of the three, indicated explicitly by the markings for the four movements: Con Spirito, Con Espressione, Allegro molto e vivace, and Presto.
Violinist Frautschi led the opening Allegro with a deft serpentine insinuating line that morphed into questioning, then into a grazioso that moved into sadness, brooding and reproach, creating a continuous Ariadne thread through a complex labyrinth dark and shifting moods. The ensemble playing was expressive without being overly dramatic, the coda light and delicate moving into mystery. In the aria-like adagio, Thompson and Canellakis surrounded Frautschi with beautiful and discretely nuanced shadows. Frautschi again led in the scherzo, seeking to move out of the darkness and encouraged by viola and cello, all forceful and focused. The trio was particularly effective, evoking restorative forces of repair and surface tones. The presto finale brought deliverance, the three voices distinct but unified, the violin coaxed to cross the threshold of new life, encouraged by viola and cello to move forward into immensity.
Bartók dedicated both of his Violin Sonatas to the beautiful and talented Jelly d’Aranyi, both works premiered with Bartok at the piano in the early 1920s, at the start of Bartok’s middle period. In these years his compositions reached a peak of Expressionist dissonance, colorfully labelled “aggressive ugliness” by contemporary critics. Bartók, enamored of d’Aranyi, seems to have allowed his music to speak for him, to no avail as her true love had been killed in action in the World War.
If the Beethoven trio spoke of darkness and deliverance, Bartók’s sonata, as delivered by Frautschi and Hochman, conveyed “trauma and survival.” In an extraordinary feat of ruptured communication, they expressed the agony of a terror that cannot be named, with violence and emotional turmoil in the first movement, the violin both seeking and rejecting the piano’s puzzled and distraught help. In the adagio, a form of deliverance emerged as the violin was able to acquire the voice of the Libation bearer, the Weeper, while the piano tolled a solemn death knell, inexorable and eloquent. The final Allegro plunged us into a dangerous Totendanz, frenetic and seductive, evoking modernistic gears ready to crush us while propelling us manically to an unknown destiny and concluding with the marvelously primitive jarring of a fierce Aprózó. Frautschi and Hochman achieved an extraordinary intensity, sustained from start to finish through the rapidly shifting confrontations, retreats, attacks, occasional fusions, and repulsions that Bartók somehow wove into a coherent narrative.
Is Destiny Darkness? Is music deliverance? After five years of wooing, in 1877 Marianne Viardot agreed to marry Gabriel Fauré, but to his considerable distress she broke off the engagement after four months. His Piano Quartet No. 1 was composed during this tumultuous period, the first two movements lively, happy and energetic, the third movement adagio overflowing with sadness. We will apparently never know what the original finale conveyed, since Fauré destroyed it (deliverance?) and replaced it with a new finale for the quartet’s publication in 1884. In France a disastrous love affair (un chagrin d’amour) is no trivial event or source of shame. It is really a badge of honor, a cherished scar that attests to living life fully, to full membership in humanity, experience of the sacred and connection to the sublime.
Joining all their voices, the BCMS players and their two guests opened the Quartet with a rich, beautiful ensemble in medias res, lush with a sort of oceanic swelling of emotions. They gave the Brahmsian first theme the full clout of destiny, balanced by the graceful imitative texture of the second theme to evoke the contingent manifold of the moment with its untapped possibilities. The scherzo struck this listener as a distinctly French hymn of gallantry in praise of the heart. The heart throbs when plucked by colors, forms, perfumes and the sight of the beloved. It lets itself become dizzy but never loses its grip. Without it, life would have no meaning. When it loves, it colors everything with warmth (the trio section). Grace inhabits it and dilates it. When it is broken, our whole being suffers shipwreck and sinks into unutterable darkness.
Cellist Canellakis initiated the dark and funereal dirge of the Adagio with just the kind of magnificent simplicity that Fauré intended. Violin, viola and piano joined in to add further darkness, saturating the music with lamentation until it acquired an aura of musica sacra, nursing suffering under a vast tent of darkness and stars, where human wretchedness, no matter how private and paltry, is cosmically acknowledged and redeemed. After this astonishing catharsis, Hochman’s piano opened a path to new wisdom finale, secretly infused with a recovering joie de vivre that triumphs over melancholy through humanistic acceptance of what befalls us. The performers subtly juxtaposed Fauré’s two analytic themes, shaping the c minor theme to evoke deliverance and rekindling of hope, and shaping the tonally ambiguous second theme to evoke the mysterious work of memory, extracting beauty from darkness, deliverance from shipwreck. What else is music but our collective ability to do so, again and again? The audience filling Sanders Theater was deeply moved by the concert and gave the performers an unaffected and sincere ovation. The BCMS has developed a real bond of trust with their audience, and this trust helps to create an intimate atmosphere conducive to playing of the highest order and of the deepest meaning.
Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.