Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
Hannaford Hall, USM Portland
April 9, 2016
by Christopher Hyde
I wondered how Portland Ovations had managed to attract such a large audience to Hannaford Hall on a sunny Saturday afternoon. As soon as I heard the first bars of the Beethoven Quartet in E-flat Major for Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello (Op. 16), it all became clear. These people must have heard artists from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center before, and knew that the afternoon’s performances would define what to listen for in years too come.
The Society comprises prominent musicians from around the world, who collaborate as trios, quartets, chamber orchestras or other ensembles to perform works from the entire chamber music repertoire. Appearing under the auspices of Portland Ovations were: Gilles Vonsattel, piano, Arnaud Sussmann , violin, Paul Neubauer, viola and Paul Watkins, cello.
They played a program centered around the Dvorák Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 87, including works that influenced or were influenced by that seminal composition. And what playing. They might have been together for a century to have developed such a degree of coordination. One could see them smiling at each other when listening for the beats that would define a microtone of pitch differential.
The early Beethoven quartet was simply gorgeous, perhaps more melodic and easily accessible on first hearing than his later works. One could see why Dvorak might have loved it.
Everything about the performance was almost perfect—the balance between instruments, precise entrances and phrase endings (the latter more difficult than anything else), dynamics, lyrical singing tones where appropriate, and so on, but most compelling was the sheer joy of playing. The overall impression was one of confidence and solidity, forming the basis of free expression. And they retuned between every movement.
After the Beethoven came the Serenade in C Major for Violin, Viola and Cello, Op. 10, written by Ernõ Dohnányi in 1902, and making even greater use of folk motifs than Dvorák. While not in the same league as the Beethoven quartet, it was fascinating in its innovations, beginning with a melody over a bagpipe drone in the first bars, and ending with a strong sforzando. Its tonal ambiguity made one realize just how much folk music provided a doorway to atonality.
Too much perfection is inhuman, so I was happy to hear a single wrong note from the piano during the passionate opening movement of the Dvorak piano quartet. (Maybe he did it on purpose.) The rest was a definitive rendering of one of the most melodic works in the repertoire.
Sometimes it was bit too lush, as in the best known and repetitive melodic passages, accompanied by a treble piano obligato. It conjured up memories of the Plaza Palm Court and its strolling musicians. But that was the fault of the composer, not his interpreters.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.