The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s flexible line-up allows them to have fascinating mixed programmes, and Thursday night’s concert, in the beautiful palace of Dresden’s Großer Garen, was a fine example. Taking a “transatlantic bridge” as their theme for the evening, the Chamber Music Society put together a programme featuring composers from both sides of The Pond who were heavily influenced by their intercontinental counterparts. As a programming idea this was quite interesting. Placed against Ravel, Gershwin’s An American in Paris had a heightened Frenchness, while Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano mirrored the Gershwin’s piano preludes all the more strongly.

David Finkel and Wu Han © Christian Steiner
David Finkel and Wu Han
© Christian Steiner

Sadly the interesting programming was not always matched by the performances. Violinist Yura Lee has a colourful sound palette which she used liberally throughout her performance of Ravel’s Violin Sonata. But however beautiful the sound itself was, there was little sense of meaning to it, the climaxes of the first movement seemed restrained and the overall arch of the music was lost. The second movement fared better with explosive pizzicati, and a wonderful feeling of improvising, but the finale again seemed empty. As a pianist, Ravel’s piano parts are no mere accompaniment, and this is very much chamber music comprised of two musical equals in conversation. However, Lee seemed to have little musical contact with her pianist, Wu Han, and one had the impression of two separate entities which by chance fit together, rather than intimate music making.

Playing Gershwin’s original version of An American in Paris, for two pianos, Wu Han and Gloria Chien made an impressive pair. The range of sounds they conjured from their instruments rivalled that of the orchestra, and the climaxes were superb. Gershwin wrote this “rhapsodic ballet” during and following his stay in Paris in the twenties, and it is wholly programmatic, with a melodic and narrative thread from beginning to end. Despite the great moments Han and Chien’s performance didn’t bring this bigger picture across.

Following the interval came George Antheil’s Sonata no.2 for Violin, Piano and Percussion, for me the highlight of the evening. Violinist, Kristin Lee, was totally at home in this eclectic collage style, where jazz brushes up against the classical avant-garde. The piece, so radical at the time of its premiere that the copyist felt the need to “correct” the harmony, is marked by its sudden stylistic changes and both Lee and pianist, Gloria Chien, threw themselves into every one, with a total change of character and colour as through a switch had been flicked. The final bars, where Chien moved from piano to tom-toms, featured a beautiful eastern-sounding melody, which Lee played mesmerizingly into the silence.

The concert closed with Korngold’s Piano Quintet in E major, one of his earlier works, written before his move to California. Significantly, Korngold considered himself to be a modern composer, although his music is reminiscent of the late-Romantic style of early Schoenberg. That said, his structures, and particularly in his textures, are very forward thinking and much of this can be seen in his Piano Quintet, where the textures fragment and reform constantly, as in the orchestral textures of his contemporary, Webern. The players of the Chamber Music Society played with both gusto and subtlety, with a fiery opening to the first movement. The second movement, with its more radical harmonic shifts provided opportunities for beautiful colours, when Gloria Chen blended superbly with the soft string sounds. Particularly beautiful moments were created by Richard O’Neill on the viola, whose rich, lyrical sound created some unforgettable moments.

But that was the problem of the whole concert. There were passages of extreme beauty, of passion and of joy, throughout the evening, but to what end? The only piece which seemed to succeed as a whole was Antheil’s sonata, a piece which is quite emphatically composed as a series of moments, and not a narrative flow. Otherwise this evening of lovely moments didn’t provide the overall flow to contain them.

***11