Above: Sean Lee, violinist
Sunday March 13th, 2016 - Another packed house at Alice Tully Hall as Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presented seven superb musicians in a program of works by three masters: Mozart, Schubert, and Mendelssohn. A trio of estimable violinists alternated in leading roles, Wu Han produced exquisite sounds at the Steinway, and the resonances of the lower string voices were finely balanced by a violist, cellist and bassist who added immeasurably to the evening's pleasure.
Above: violinist Kristin Lee
Mozart's Quartet in E-flat major K.493 set the mood for the evening in a performance of reassuring comfort and joy, luring our thoughts away from the cares and concerns of daily life to bask in the timeless solace of great music. In this mellow and congenial work, the first of the evening's violinists, Kristin Lee, sent her sweet tones warmly into the hall; together with violist Richard O'Neill, cellist Nicholas Canellakis, and pianist Wu Han, the entwined voices of this quartet sailed blissfully through the music's dynamic shifts. The opening Allegro provides a bouquet of lyrical themes, which the string players passed from bow to bow in a seamless rendering; meanwhile, the shimmering delicacy which Wu Han is so eminently capable of producing created a magical effect in some of the music's most appealing passages.
A sense of calm in the Larghetto filled me with peace; how expressive were the string players here, and how finely-judged the lingering loveliness of Wu Han's playing. Ms. Lee continued to un-spool her silken thread, whilst Mr. O'Neill - so attentive to Ms. Lee's every nuance - produced an alto tone of just the right richness. Nick Canellakis' cello is simply gorgeous to hear, recalling his wonderful performance of Leon Kirchner's Music for Cello and Orchestra with the ASO at Carnegie Hall last season. In the quartet's concluding Allegretto, the four musicians savoured the charming touch of wit that the composer has inserted; the music gets a bit stormy, but it's only a passing moment, for things soon turn lyrical again, and - with playing both lively and subtle - our musicians sped blithely on to the finish.
Though is lasts only a quarter of an hour, Franz Schubert's 1816 composition, the Rondo for Violin and Strings (D. 438), packs an enormous variety of virtuoso passages into its brief span. It opens, though, with a charming Adagio, intoned lovingly today by a choir in which violinist Benjamin Beilman joined Kristin Lee, Richard O'Neill, and Nick Canellakis.
Sean Lee then tucked his violin under his chin and proceeded to dazzle us with his flights of coloratura in a performance brimming with energy and loaded with amiable flourishes. For all the fireworks, Sean's playing also managed to show astonishing control and nuance, and an appealing palette of colour. Amidst a profusion of sprightly tunes, charming pauses pop up unexpectedly - and Sean relished these with a sly smile. Meanwhile, his high-class back-up group delighted us with their own abounding musicality, and they seemed to buoy Sean with their deft playing. As this exciting performance reached its end, the audience could barely suppress their fervent response. The string quartet players refused to stand, instead joining in the applause for our virtuoso soloist and leaving Sean with a much-merited solo bow; Sean finally had to haul Nick Canellakis out of his chair so we could acknowledge all five artists with sustained applause. What a delightful moment!
I know intermissions are a necessity - especially to allow the players to catch their breath and refresh themselves - but today I could hardly wait for the houselights to dim and the concert's concluding work to begin. Mendelssohn is one of my favorite composers - it was a chance hearing of one of his piano trios on the radio many, many years ago that first beckoned me to the joys of chamber music - and with tonight's spectacular rendering of his Double Concerto in D minor, his place in my firmament is emphatically reassured.
Written in 1823, while the precocious Felix Mendelssohn was only fourteen years old, this remarkable 'double' concerto offers pianist and solo violinist a veritable treasure-chest of themes with which to enchant us: exciting solo passages for both featured instruments abound, and heartfelt melodies where their voices mesh create a deeply satisfying experience.
Two violinists - Kristin Lee and Sean Lee - joined Richard O'Neill, Nick Canellakis, and NY Philharmonic bass player Blake Hinson to form an ensemble of the first magnitude: Mr. Hinson's playing gave the music a lovely momentum, and he can shift from the subtle to the propulsive in the twinkling of an eye.
Above: pianist Wu Han in a Lisa-Marie Mazzucco portrait
Above: Benjamin Beilman, violinist, photographed by Giorgia Bertazzi
The double concerto's soloists - Wu Han and Ben Beilman - were extraordinary. The scale of Ben's playing is so big and impassioned that it pierces soul, yet in the course of this work there were uncanny moments of dynamic control and coloristic demi-tints that left me enthralled. Wu Han matched Ben's technical polish, rhythmic clarity, and sense of the poetic measure for measure - they are ideal colleagues.
In the concerto's Adagio, the two reached a pinnacle of artistic grace as Ben first intoned a poignant melody to which Wu Han then harmonized; their tone was mutually honed down to a ravishing whisper and then - just when the heart is at the breaking point - the ensemble re-enters: sheer heaven! A bit later, Ben sustained a pianissimo-in-alt of breathtaking beauty.
In the concluding Allegro molto, Ben's playing was so melodically engaging, and Wu Han's rippling lyricism really took wing; in their unified virtuosity, they seemed truly to inspire one another at every moment of their stellar performance. In yet another heart-stopping moment, as Ben lingered on the gentlest bit of finesse, the music came to an unexpected halt. Time seemed to stand still - and I wish that it had, for I was loathe to leave my haven of peace in this Hall - but then the music continued on its way.
With the two soloists ever-prominent, the ensemble players nevertheless garnered my unbounded admiration throughout the concerto: ideally blended sound, and a brief cello passage from Mr. Canellakis that seemed to zoom directly into my ear, as if he was playing just for me.
At the end of their performance, Ben and Wu Han fell into an embrace of mutual admiration and the audience swept to their feet with shouts of admiration for the players, for the music, and for the sheer pleasure of having been there.
One very interesting aspect of the performance was the opportunity to compare the timbres of the three violins, for - as it's become increasingly evident to me - no two violins sound truly alike. I could hear and savour the differences, but attempting to describe what I'd heard presents a challenge. In a few weeks, I'll be having lunch with one of my favorite young violinists, and I plan to explore this topic with him. It might be a long lunch.
- Mozart Quartet in E-flat major for Piano, Violin, Viola, and Cello, K. 493 (1786)
- Schubert Rondo in A major for Violin and String Quartet, D. 438 (1816)
- Mendelssohn Double Concerto in D minor for Violin, Piano, and Strings (1823)
The Participating Artists: