From Mozart to Beethoven to Brahms – and so it goes. We’re told there’s a clear progression from the formal structures of “classical” music to the more emotionally expressive tradition we know as “romantic.” This convenient evolutionary schema makes categorization fairly simple.
But it obscures a truth about music that reflects an important one about humanity. We are simultaneously analytical and passionate, intellectual and instinct-driven, cravers of structure and lovers of freedom.
Strictures of form didn’t keep passion out of Mozart’s music – far from it. In the decades that followed, Beethoven and then Brahms found ever more brilliant ways of sculpting the full range of the human experience over frameworks they’d inherited.
The musicians of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) convey this duality every time they play the canonical composers and works of the 18th and 19th centuries. At their April 8 concert at Alice Tully Hall, an ensemble that grew from three members to six presented music by Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms: a trio, a quintet, and a sextet respectively. Played out of chronological and stylistic order, these works reminded us that structure and emotion go hand in hand in music, as they do in other arts. Almost any artist will tell you that observing rules and traditions helps set the creative mind free.
A String Trio by Beethoven
Beethoven wrote his string trios in his 20s. He was as yet shy of trying his hand at the string quartet form, nervous about comparison with his mentor Haydn’s. Nonetheless the Op. 9 string trios are the works of a mature, if not yet outright revolutionary, creative mind. The Trio in G major for Violin, Viola and Cello, Op. 9, No. 1 opened the program.
Measured pacing and the players’ acute awareness of space revealed the music’s carefully built depths. The Adagio felt spacious, layered with emotion. Light prismed through the flowing legato. Paul Neubauer’s viola sounded very like a human voice in exposed moments. He, violinist Stella Chen, and cellist David Requiro ably defined Beethoven’s dimensionality by moving as one voice through an ebbing and flowing tempo.
The harmonically rich Scherzo skittered by, feather-light. During the unfolding drama the Presto finale, the three musicians achieved almost the hefty sonority of a string quartet.
A String Quintet by Mozart
The sublime opening movement of Mozart’s Quintet No. 2 in C minor flew its colors transcendently. It did not suffer in comparison with the Budapest String Quartet’s legendary recording with violist Walter Trampler. (Trampler, by the way, about a half a century ago participated in CMS’s debuts of all of this evening’s works, as did the concert’s dedicatee, cellist Leslie Parnas, a founding member of the CMS, who died at 90 earlier this year.)
Beethoven made something new and brilliant in the canon-form Menuetto, with its angelic Trio section. The CMS musicians mesmerized with its yearning melodies. The final movement’s variations featured bravura passagework from cellist Mihai Marica, who had joined Chen and Neubauer along with violinist Ani Kafavian and violist Hsin-Yun Huang.
The applause that followed felt almost like an extra musical movement, that’s how much I enjoyed hearing it. Why? It signals the continuing robustness of the audience for this great music.
A String Sextet by Brahms
All six musicians took the stage for Brahms’s Sextet No. 1 in B-flat major. Moving through the opening movement’s lush harmonies, the players conveyed an almost orchestral breadth. I especially appreciated their rendition of the second movement. Based on the old “La Folia” chord progression, it sees the viola belting out the melody early on. Together the two violas were forcefully airy, almost like bagpipes. Rolling scales from the cello undergirded a cinematic development. The ending, with its Balkan-like folk-dance quality, was absolutely lovely.
The diminutive but robust Scherzo set up the finale, which I’ve always loved. The ensemble played it with determination and drama, diving forthrightly into its harmonic and rhythmic excitement. “Romantic” music? Certainly. Also “classical?” Yes, too, as the term is commonly used.
Yet however musically knowledgeable many in the audience may have been, their enthusiastic applause knew no terminology. Music evolves, but great music also persists, sounding fresh through the ages. What you or the experts may call it is mostly beside the point.