There is certainly no post-holiday letdown in Classical programming at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. Leaping into 2016, they've resumed their first-Tuesday series with an all-Schumann concert of chamber music gems, foreshadowing a February visitation by world-renowned clarinetist Michael Collins, who will be playing trio works by Mozart and Bruch. In addition, a side order of John Adams is planned early in the same week, when he plays Mozart's concerto for basset clarinet with the Charlotte Symphony. Nor does the March installment of the Music and Museum series qualify as an anticlimax, since Antonio Lysy will be playing half of Bach's six solo cello suites at the lunchtime concert and the other half – the even-numbered suites – later in the day at the after-work concert.
Turning the clock further and further back as it progressed, the noontime "Schumanniana" launched the new year with the first of the composer's two 1851 violin sonatas, calmed down somewhat with the cello sonata scoring of the 1849 Adagio and Allegro, and galloped to the finish line with the rousing Piano Trio No. 1 from 1847. Bruce Murray, the former Brevard Music Center dean, was at the keyboard throughout. After the opening piece, Charlotte Symphony's assistant principal cellist, Jon Lewis, joined him. Only the young French-born violinist, Chloé Kiffer was making her Charlotte debut – one that I will not soon forget.
If the programming strategy had prioritized acclimating the audience to the echoey acoustic of the Bechtler's fourth floor with its high-vaulted ceiling, the ensemble would have opted to begin smoothly and lyrically with the Adagio and Allegro. Instead, we plunged into the dark brooding mood of Schumann's "Mit leidenschaftlichem Ausdruck" (with passionate expression), the swift opening movement of the A minor Violin Sonata No. 1. It wasn't the best way to spotlight Kiffer's precision – or her silvery tone – as she attacked the turbulent swirl of Schumann's romanticism. However, amid the hairpin turns of mood there were calm episodes when the music slowed down long enough to dispel the room's reverberations and reveal the pearlescent clarity of Murray's accompaniment and the graceful sinew of Kiffer's playing. Kiffer navigated the shifting currents with the driving purposefulness of an Olympic kayak racer knifing through the rapids.
We could luxuriate more in Kiffer's sweet lyricism when we reached the middle Allegretto movement, where the Bechtler's acoustic warmth became more of an asset. The lilt of the violinist's playing didn't disappear during quicker-paced episodes. Their joy bloomed while a delicate elegance remained. Rounding into the closing "Lebhaft" (lively) movement, Kiffer didn't have to deal with the constant bipolarity of Schumann's mood swings, and forged straight ahead with a speed that carried the jubilation of love along with its urgent anguish. Only a couple of cautionary decelerations punctuated the onrush of exhilaration. Murray and Kiffer conspired to sustain the freshness of this finale, serving up abrupt changes in dynamics and tempo until it climaxed.
There were far more opportunities for Murray to shine in the A-flat Adagio and Allegro, beginning in the opening movement, marked "Langsam, mit innigem Ausdruck" (slowly with heartfelt expression), where he and Lewis passed the melody back and forth. The cellist's fine left hand was particularly effective here, delivering silken glissandos and a well-judged vibrato. Lewis hit the more familiar Allegro melody with admirable gusto, although he also ran afoul of the room's acoustics in the most agitated moments, as you might expect with a movement marked "Rasch und feurig" (quick and fiery). The effort required to savor Lewis' work on the melody often distracted me from Murray's fine work at the keyboard, a richer accompaniment than you might expect behind such a catchy tune. As we reached the crest of this powerfully yearning movement, the duo turned up their intensity a notch, drawing attention to their fine rapport as the piece ended.
Schumann's Piano Trio No. 1 is so chockfull of memorable ideas that only the third of the four movements can sound unfamiliar after you've heard the piece two or three times. Both Murray and Kiffer reveled in the melodiousness of the opening, sharing most of the action of this "Mit Energie und Leidenschaft" (with energy and passion) movement. Lewis was most impactful in the onset of the mood change, Kiffer stamping it in wistfulness before the onset of another passionate storm.
The violinist had a keen sense of the flourishing gestures in the foreboding moments and of their connection to the grand peaks that followed. She and Murray galloped into the ensuing movement, nearly violating the "not too fast" component of its "Lebhaft, doch nicht zu rasch" marking. Nor did the softer midsection of the movement ease off as dramatically as other readings I've heard. So the return to the opening gallop was more organically connected, though less dramatic. Yet there was still unmistakable bravura held in reserve for the conclusion.
An island of calm – and ordinariness – in this powerful masterwork, the third movement was particularly notable for its pleasantly tart blending of Lewis' cello with Kiffer's violin. Murray was no less effective here, levitating the end of this "Langsam" so that it floated decorously into the final "Mit Feuer" without a pause. It was here that I noticed the ongoing ministrations of the projectionist, which dissolved a previous quibble I had with the slides on the rear wall that I noticed as Benjamin K. Roe was delivering his erudite intros to the works and the musicians. Amid the movements listed under the titles of each succeeding piece, the first movement was always bolded, standing apart from the other movements. It was only when we moved seamlessly to the final movement of the concert that I noticed the boldface helpfully shifting to "Mit Feuer" on the projected slide.
While the trio didn't initially illuminate the mystery of why Schumann thought this movement was notably fiery, they brought out its true anthemic flavor as well as any live performance or recording I've heard. Murray and Kiffer were both ardent handing the melody off to each other, all the more powerful when they chimed in together. The entire trio churned ominously before the final return of the triumphal theme. After it sounded, the pianist and the violinist took turns taking us on arpeggiated excursions, ratcheting up the tension before an ultimate release of true fire. It was a frantic, galloping rush to the finish, and there was no mystery at all about why the performance drew a standing ovation.