On Thursday evening, longtime local chamber music group Winsor Music demonstrated the meaning of ‘better late than never’, as co-artistic directors Gabriela Diaz and Rane Moore welcomed a live audience to the First Church from Boston for a program originally scheduled for Spring 2020. The program juxtaposed 19th-century dishes by Robert and Clara Schumann with selections from modern miniature master György Kurtág: a surprising, yet deeply satisfying combination.
This unique combination has worked so well, thanks in part to star performer Kim Kashkashian, a New England Conservatory faculty member and seasoned performer who has released several award-winning recordings of Kurtág’s music. Before embarking on a series of five selections for solo viola from “Signs, Games, and Messages,” the performer shared several candid anecdotes from his time working with the now-nonagenarian composer. Kashkashian relayed the unreleased subtitle of the elegy “Tamar Blum”, which was written for a friend who had lost her husband – “Don’t be sad: I’m waiting for you on the other side”. In performing “Tamar Blum,” Kashkashian delivered solemn yet gentle double stops that flowed note by note, the rhythm only breaking off when a single tone erupted in a droning, anguished scream. “The Chromatic Argument,” another standout, had been explained to Kashkashian as a depiction of “two very stupid people” who can’t get along: with the viola’s lowest and highest pitches pulling sinuous lines in parallel, it was not difficult to imagine the composer transcribing a lovers’ quarrel, or his own memory.
Peggy Pearson, founder and oboist of Winsor Music, pianist Donald Berman and Moore (a clarinetist) also contributed parts of the program: Moore and Pearson with two short but striking duets for the primary sounds of bass clarinet and English horn , then the trio of Kashkashian, Berman and Moore for “Tribute to R. Schumann”. No written program notes were provided, but Moore translated and deciphered the movement titles for the audience from the microphone, highlighting references to Robert Schumann’s musical alter egos Florestan, Eusebius and Raro.
Listening to Kurtág’s miniatures can feel like peering into an exquisitely crafted bag of marbles. Contained within each little structure awaits an entire world, and the performers of Winsor and Kashkashian knew exactly how to hold them up to light. When a sudden downpour hit during the spacious final movement of the Schumann tribute, it seemed as much a part of the piece as the thud of Moore’s bass drum that ended the first half of the concert: the only time the big drum that stayed on stage all night was used.
Preceding Kurtág’s selections is Pearson’s arrangement of Clara Schumann’s ‘3 Romances’, pieces which have received increased attention in recent years as interest in female composers of centuries past has grown. The pieces were originally for violin and piano, with a solo written for the virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim. Pearson’s arrangement put her own instrument, the oboe, in the front seat, and she delivered the melodies with all the nimble eloquence Emmanuel Music listeners have come to know from her giving many Bach cantatas, while that the pianist Berman provided a solid foundation.
The back half of the concert was given to Schumann’s Piano Quartet, with Diaz (violin) and Rafael Popper-Keizer (cello) joining Berman and Kashkashian. Initially I thought I had trouble hearing Kashkashian and wondered if the special guest role suffered from middle child syndrome, but then I realized that the violist and cellist had matched their warm, burnished timbres so well that it was sometimes necessary to lean forward to see which arc moved in which patterns. Some cohesion between piano and strings was lost during the faster sections of the second Scherzo movement, but the quartet covered those tracks in the third movement, laying down one of those lowercase romantic melodies that Schumann excelled at and setting it on fire. .
The Winsor Music season continues with two performances of a program featuring guest pianist Simone Dinnerstein and composer Milan Yousufi. (May 13-14).
First Church in Boston, April 14. www.winsormusic.org