At Alice Tully Hall, its customary home, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presented a concert on Sunday afternoon. First, its executive director came out to make a few remarks. She said something like this: “Not a few of you had your hearts broken on Centre Court at 2 p.m. I hope the music will prove a balm.”
She was referring to the victory of Novak Djokovic over Roger Federer, the clear fan favorite, at Wimbledon.
There were three works and four performers on the CMS program. One of the performers, the pianist, did triple duty. That is, he performed in all three works, and the pianist was Juho Pohjonen, the fabulous Finn.
(It is the fate of all Finns, if they are any good at all, to be known as fabulous Finns.)
The first work was Mozart’s violin-and-piano sonata in B flat, K. 454. Anne-Sophie Mutter and her longtime recital partner, Lambert Orkis, played this work in Carnegie Hall last season. Let me tell you a secret—something not all critics will tell you: this sonata can be boring as hell, like a lot of Mozart. It takes performers to bring it to life, as with a lot of Mozart. It will not play itself. You have to play it. You have to reveal its greatness.
This is one reason that Mozart is a great test—probably the best test—of performers.
Bella Hristova, the violinist, and Pohjonen passed the test. (She is an American from Bulgaria, incidentally.) Mozart’s sonata popped off the page.
The sonata begins with an announcement—a musical announcement. The players handled this very well. As the music continued, Hristova played with a handsome sound and a smart sense of phrasing. Pohjonen has, among other things, an interesting legato (as I’ve noted in the past). It has some detachment in it. There is crunchy in his smooth, if you will. I’ve never heard anything quite like it.
Their tempos were breathable. There was proper balance between the two players. And they were robust, unafraid. They did not treat their Mozart as fragile. Pohjonen was, characteristically, very clear. There was not a speck of fuzz in his playing. At the same time, it was not mechanical.
They let the second movement, Andante, be the beautiful, simple song it is (a song that Mozart proceeds to embroider, to be sure). I might have asked for more bloom from the violin, but the movement was good enough.
Personally, I like the closing Allegretto a little lighter and merrier. It was a little earnest for me, and a little big. But the duo played creditably, and they listened to each other as they went. Let me say, too, that the evenness of Pohjonen’s passagework is astonishing.
Next on the program was the Brahms clarinet trio in A minor, Op. 114. The pianist stayed, as you know. He was joined by Anthony McGill, the celebrated principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic, and Nicholas Canellakis, a young American cellist, whose sister, Karina, is making a name for herself as a conductor.
Many people say—they may be right—that full-time chamber ensembles—e.g., the Beaux Arts Trio—play better than ensembles that are thrown together for a concert or two (usually one). It is their job, after all. Yet the McGill-Pohjonen-Canellakis trio played as though they did it every day. They were very, very accurate. And they were equal. No single player stood out. Even McGill wasn’t the “star.” He and the other two were first-rate, and they blended as a whole.
Vikram Seth wrote a novel called An Equal Music (title taken from John Donne).
In Brahms’s first movement, the clarinet was songful, and the cello was songful, and even the piano—the least singer-like instrument—was songful. This is key in this work. Like the players in the Mozart sonata, the players in the Brahms trio were unafraid. They loosed some Brahmsian storms, not worried about being “chamber-like.”
Also, I heard a dog not barking, as you often do: intonation. All the players were in tune. This makes a serious difference.
In the second movement, Adagio, McGill demonstrated long-breathed loveliness. The entire movement, from all concerned, was tender (though not overly sentimental). The final movement, Allegro, had a dash of paprika, which is just what the composer put in it.
I hope someone was recording this performance. You can go many a moon without hearing a Brahms clarinet trio so good.
Last on the program was a work by Anton Arensky, that underappreciated master, who lived from 1861 to 1906. It was one of his best works, too: the piano trio in D minor. The work is very Russian, and includes a pleasing folk element.
In my view, the glory of this trio is the Scherzo: a fleet, impish delight. It is an ingenious little piece, all on its own. The following movement, an elegy, is pretty special, pretty glorious too.
Returning to the stage for the Arensky—joining Pohjonen and Canellakis—was Bella Hristova. The first movement was adequate, though not as sure-footed as the previous performances had been. There were little stumbles, and a general lack of confidence (full confidence, that is). The Scherzo was adequate too. But it might have been a little freer. Everyone was staring at his music—all three of them were—and seemed to be concentrating hard.
Holy Moses was Pohjonen crisp—crisp and even—in his passagework.
The elegy was a beauty. Canellakis, as in the Brahms, sang like a pro. The pianist contributed some startling, lovely bell-like sounds. And in the finale, the players had the freedom I missed earlier, playing with outright rhapsody and abandon.
This was a very satisfying—and, in the case of the Brahms, extraordinary—late afternoon of music-making.
A couple of footnotes, please—giving you full-service criticism: The stairs in Alice Tully are a hazard, made worse by dim lighting. People stumble all the time, and not just oldsters. Also, the drinking fountains might as well be in Siberia—a subterranean Siberia.