A sly salute to Haydn via Schubert, Brahms

Marcus Thompson, Boston Chamber Music Society’s artistic director. Marcus Thompson, Boston Chamber Music Society’s artistic director. (
By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / October 20, 2009

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CAMBRIDGE - For his first concert as the Boston Chamber Music Society’s new artistic director, violist Marcus Thompson honored an absent guest, as he remarked to the audience. Nothing by Joseph Haydn appeared on Sunday night’s program, but the music that did could claim at least a tenuous link to that Classical master.

Franz Schubert, for instance, might have been more influenced by Haydn’s onetime student Beethoven, but Schubert’s B-flat major String Trio (D. 581) made an unpretentious, Haydnesque opener. It sounds like music written for friends, and Thompson, violinist Ida Levin, and guest cellist Andrew Mark rendered it that way: not playing to the crowd so much as letting them eavesdrop, the work’s compact phrases gently rounded off, like the shorthand of familiar conversation.

For John Harbison’s 2003 Piano Trio No. 2, Levin and Mark were joined at the piano by Thompson’s (and Harbison’s) MIT colleague David Deveau. Both piece and performance were temperamental contrasts to the Schubert, everything projected outward, even the body language more extroverted (especially from Deveau, his theatrical physicality matching his incisive playing).

Harbison’s program note claimed a connection with Haydn’s style, but the music is heavy with baggage picked up on its journey back to Haydn’s time - the opening movements carry the perfume of Romanticism, a scherzo burst provides plenty of early-modernist motions to go through, while the finale opts for a gnomic expressionism, hollow plucks and the rough buzz of paper on the piano’s strings. The drama broods, but the dramatic energy is always pushed to the fore, the music working out its trials on a public stage.

The A-major, Op. 26 Piano Quartet of Johannes Brahms, featuring all four players, was, at least on the surface, more hospitable chamber-music comforts, but, like Haydn, its geniality is hardly naive. The group’s sound - a dark, Rembrandt-like varnish - suited the rhetoric, in which even the most seemingly clear-cut statements tend to blur into shadow and storm. (Thompson and Mark were particularly well-matched in this, their urgency heightened by expressive reticence.)

After the Harbison, I overheard one concertgoer assure another that the Brahms would be “easier’’; maybe, but only if you’re in the habit of taking happy endings for granted. Brahms earns his sun by lasting through the night.

Marcus Thompson, artistic director
At: Sanders Theatre, Harvard University, Sunday

BOSTON CHAMBER MUSIC SOCIETY Marcus Thompson, artistic director

At: Sanders Theatre, Harvard University, Sunday

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