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Tickets often have "programs subject to change" printed on them. The Chamber Arts Society series has been struck by a series of such changes due to cancelled tours or the ill health of a member of an ensemble. Such was the case for the Schumann Trio which consists of violist Michael Tree, pianist Anna Polonsky, and clarinetist Anthony McGill. Tree, founding member of the Guarneri String Quartet, was indisposed but was ably replaced by Paul Neubauer, a violist very active in chamber music including membership in the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The announced program was adjusted for the substitute player but both the original and replacement program explored rarely heard works featuring instruments considered "inner voices" within the orchestra.
With a name like Schumann Trio it is hardly surprising some works by Robert Schumann (1810-1856) were featured. His Märchenerzälungen (Fairy Tales) for viola, piano, and clarinet, Op. 132 was composed in 1853. Schumann's mental health had been on a downward spiral marked by insomnia, hesitancy of movement and speech, and depression. This work is the product of an "Indian Summer" of creativity that coincided with the visit of the youthful Brahms. The trio is in four movements and features, according to a CD note by Joseph DuBose, "subtle harmonies, such as augmented sixth chords and intricate melodic passages." The movements are unified by thematic references. It is a sunny work with a disturbing undercurrent of agitation. The lively first movement is marked "not too fast," and is followed by a scherzo-like second movement described as "Fast and very accented." An intensely lyrical duet between viola and clarinet is a highlight of the calm and delicate slow movement. The finale shares the second movement's marking, is strongly rhythmic, and manages to be both majestic and light-hearted.
The gorgeous mellow, warm sound of the viola and clarinet were immediately striking. Neubauer produced a wonderfully burnished sound from his viola with subtle palette of tone and color. By the end of the concert I wondered if clarinetist McGill ever took a breath! His melodic line was seamless no matter the dynamic range or tempo. Early in Op. 132's first movement, a highlight was the skittish scampering of the viola set against the long-spun song of the clarinet. Polonsky's piano was superbly balanced with her colleagues and her playing ably supported their efforts. The third movement was an ethereal wonder.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was represented on the program by his Sonata in F minor for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 120. When the composer submitted his G String Quintet in December 1890, he wrote to his publisher it was time for him "to leave off composing." However in March 1891 Brahms heard the remarkable playing of clarinet virtuoso Richard Mühlfeld in Meiningen. His playing inspired Brahms to pen four late masterpieces: a Clarinet Trio, a Clarinet Quintet, and a pair of Clarinet Sonatas, Op. 120 of which No. 1 in F minor was selected for this concert. The opening movement is in the sonata form and is packed with intensity and passion. The translucent and otherworldly second movement features the clarinet spinning a seamless melodic line. The rhythmic lilt of a ländler dominates the tranquil third movement. The fast-paced finale is a very energetic rondo. McGill and Polonsky brought plenty of fire and passion in the first movement. McGill spun an endless magical line in the second movement. Both players brought out the rhythmic qualities of the third movement and pulled out all the stops for a stirring finale.
Schumann's Märchenbilder (Fairy Tale Pictures) for Viola and Piano, Op. 113 was composed in March 1851 and consists of four character pieces marked "Not fast" in D minor, "Lively" in F, "Quick" in D minor, and "Slowly, with Melancholic Expression" in D. According to an unsigned Wikipedia article, extracts from Schumann's journals indicate the first two movements "depict scenes from Rapunzel," the third movement depicts "Rumpelstiltskin dancing outside his house with attendant fairies," while the fourth "depicts scenes from The Sleeping Beauty."
It is best to ignore the detailed fairy tale comments Schumann made when savoring this delightful work. The writing for both instruments is remarkable with the keyboard part more interesting than its role in Op. 132. Neubauer's clear and subtle articulation in fast passages or abrupt changes of dynamics or tempos is amazing. Polonsky's playing was superb and most stylish. The slow, hushed last movement was like eavesdropping upon an intimate conversation.
Max Bruch (1838-1920) was a conservative composer who rejected the innovations of Liszt and Wagner. He preferred to continue composing in the styles established by Mendelssohn and Schumann. He is best known today for concertos, especially those featuring the violin, but he composed in nearly every medium from chamber music to opera. His Eight Pieces for clarinet, viola, and piano, Op. 83 was composed in 1910 when Bruch was 72 and it is natural they have an autumnal quality. Each is a character piece but is identified only by tempo designation. Only the seventh is in a major key and Bruch took pains to bring out the mellowest sound possible from the instruments. The selections played by the Schumann Trio were: No. 4 in D minor, No. 6 in G minor, No. 5 in F minor, and No. 7 in B.
The players brought out the humor in No. 4. Each player entered in turn, piano, clarinet, and viola in No. 6. They captured the "Brahmsian" quality of this nocturne. Neubauer's viola sang a melody above Polonsky's beautifully rolled chords before McGill joined with a contrasted melody in No. 5. All three musicians brought plenty of vigor and humor to the rondo form of the last selection.