If you love music and have never been to a live chamber music recital, I strongly advise giving it a shot. You will see a kind of teamwork that is mindboggling. Recorded music is fine but nothing beats observing live musicians interacting with each other to produce great music.
An excellent place to do this is the Concert Hall on the campus of Drew University in Madison, which is the New Jersey home of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The ensemble began this year’s series Monday night, with a dazzling performance of music by Haydn, Mendelssohn and Schumann. It will continue with performances on Nov. 14 and April 16.
The group, consisting of nine world-class performers, obviously loves what it does. Each member is a virtuoso with a career as a soloist, recording artist, teacher and, in many cases, a member of a major orchestra. But they relish the opportunity to play the gorgeous, intricate work that is chamber music with one another. An audience member can easily believe that they read one another’s minds.
Monday’s program spanned the Classical and Romantic repertory, with Haydn, Mendelssohn and Schumann represented. Each piece included a piano, and a different pianist was featured in each.
The Haydn Trio in A major for piano, violin and cello was performed by Wu Han at the piano, violinist Ani Kavafian and cellist Nicholas Canellakis. Composed in 1794, fairly late in Haydn’s long career, it was nevertheless a work for a fairly young instrument. The piano was not invented until the first quarter of the 18th Century (by Bartolomeo Cristofori of Florence) and its rise to popularity was one of the unanticipated consequences of the French Revolution of 1789 and the subsequent rise of the middle class in Europe.
So the Haydn Trio was in its own right somewhat revolutionary. The structure is classical, clear and logical, with the piano introducing a simple, hummable theme, which is then picked up and developed by the strings. Only 17 minutes long in total, it moves on to a traditionally somber Andante movement, and ends with a happy, Gypsy-influenced Allegro, the piano in the lead the whole time.
The second selection, Mendelssohn’s Sextet in D major for piano, violin, two violas, cello and bass, was composed by a 15-year-old prodigy in 1824, and is clearly a composition in the Romantic tradition. The performers were Michael Brown, piano, Chad Hoopes, violin, Paul Neubauer and Matthew Lipman, violas, Nicholas Canellakis, cello, and Joseph Conyers, double bass.
Warmly melodic, the sextet reflects the sweetness of youth, clearly influenced by the structure of Classicism, but with an airiness and effervescence that foreshadow changes that were coming. The piano (the composer’s own solo instrument) takes the lead, introducing theme after theme. It builds delightfully through the first movement, Allegro vivace, continuing through the slow Adagio movement before exploding into a breathtaking Menuetto Agitato.
In the pre-concert conversation with the artists, one of the string players described this movement as playing while the piano went crazy behind him. The high energy of the second movement could very easily be described this way – but crazy with a purpose. The work ends on a joyful and energetic Allegro vivace movement.
The program concluded with Robert Schumann’s Quintet in E-flat major for piano, two violins, viola and cello, composed in 1842. The historical progression of the three pieces from Classicism to Romanticism is clear, and yet the influence of the Age of Enlightenment on the later music is equally apparent.
The quintet, considered a hallmark in the history of Romanticism, was composed for Schumann’s wife, Clara Wieck Schumann, a leading piano soloist of her time. She did actually play the piano part in the first public performance, in 1843.
In the CMS performance, Anne-Marie McDermott played the piano, with Ani Kavafian and Chad Hoopes on violin, Matthew Lipman on viola and Nicholas Canellakis on cello.
It is a composition that seems to define Romanticism, its themes lush, passionate and dynamic. The second movement is a funeral march that has been borrowed for use in several film scores. The third movement, Scherzo: Molto Vivace, showcased the virtuosic dynamism of McDermott’s style. Finally, in the fourth movement, Allegro ma non troppo, Schumann tipped his hat to his Classical roots, as two themes are turned into a fugue.
Wu Han, in her introduction to the program, said that it was planned for the audience to exit the concert hall at the end, smiling. In that, it certainly succeeded.