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MUSIC REVIEW

Chamber players give venerable pieces flair

Cellist Ronald Thomas is also Boston Chamber Music Society's artistic director. Cellist Ronald Thomas is also Boston Chamber Music Society's artistic director. (christian steiner)
Email|Print| Text size + By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / November 22, 2007

CAMBRIDGE - For some time now, chamber groups have been the main laboratory for classical music innovation - maybe even music in general (rock and jazz bands are, after all, mostly chamber-size). But the Boston Chamber Music Society, celebrating its 25th season, is a throwback: venerable repertoire in a civilized milieu, presented with simple flair and camaraderie. Sunday's concert was a good example: no overarching theme to the program, just works the performers felt were worth playing.

Albert Roussel's 1929 Trio juxtaposes sprightly neoclassicism with more enigmatic, impressionistic streams. Flutist Fenwick Smith, violist Marcus Thompson, and cellist (and BCMS artistic director) Ronald Thomas had their own fascinating counterpoint: Smith's pearly tones contrasted with Thompson's sleek elegance and Thomas's wiry, taut timbre. The combination bore uncanny fruit in the second movement, a nocturnal stroll that, for all its placidity, passes through some eerie places.

Clarinetist Thomas Hill and pianist Randall Hodgkinson played Leonard Bernstein's first published work, his 1942 Clarinet Sonata. The first movement catalogs the young composer's influences: Hindemith, Copland, Blitzstein. But in the second, Bernstein recognizably emerges, and the fun is spotting embryonic appearances of many stylistic hallmarks - the triadic melodies, oracular chiming chords, descending progressions from bright major to wistful minor. Hill and Thompson gave a clean, transparent rendering; the skittering polyrhythms in the finale sometimes detached from their underlying pulse, but the frequent lyrical call-and-response between the instruments was natural and eloquent.

Post-intermission, violinist Ida Levin, Thomas, and Hodgkinson embarked on a riveting, full-bore voyage through Tchaikovsky's massive A-minor Piano Trio (Op. 50). Within such resplendence, the group still made interesting conversation: Levin and Thomas's fiery intensity (even comparatively gentle passages were the eye of the storm, not a break in the weather) played off Hodgkinson's more patrician approach to his own formidable, concerto-worthy part.

Composed in memory of his friend and colleague Nikolai Rubenstein, Tchaikovsky's music has imposing, deliberately Russian gravity. The work's second half, an epic set of variations with ample room for cinematic set-pieces - a tinkling music box, an elegant waltz, a vigorous fugue, a bombastic fanfare - starts to feel less like a portrait and more like a biography. The players gave it their necessary all; indeed, the scale and grandeur that Tchaikovsky packs into the piece strains the idea of chamber music. That, no doubt, was the intent: a life portrayed not according to the classical unities, but bursting at the seams.

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