Two Hill churches host chamber music concerts

by Michael Caruso
Posted 3/24/22

Whereas PCCH’s Steinway grand is a masterwork that beautifully evokes the sound of turn-of the-20th-century Steinways – mellow, but clear – the instrument at St. Paul’s sounds as though it were wearing a woolen mute.

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Two Hill churches host chamber music concerts


Two of Chestnut Hill’s most musically active churches hosted varied yet complementary recitals over the first weekend in March. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church continued its series of “Five Fridays” concerts on March 4 with a performance featuring soprano Helen Zhibing Huang and pianist Andrew Hauze. The following evening, the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill (PCCH) presented pianist Mark Livshits and cellist John Koen in recital.

Koen and Livshits played a program that spanned the repertoire from the early Romantic Robert Schumann through the Romantic classicist Johannes Brahms through the late Romantic Frank Bridge into the modern Neoclassical Francis Poulenc. In all four works, they proved themselves not only a duo of interpreters worthy of the great music they performed, but also a musical pairing of splendid individual players coming together to form a stylistic whole greater than the sum of its singular parts.

Their program opened with Schumann’s “Adagio and Allegro.” In music of deeply felt emotions extravagantly projected, Koen offered a darkly singing line that was smoothly and evenly delineated from the top to the bottom of the cello’s range. Livshits elicited thrilling clarity balanced against throbbing resonance from PCCH’s expertly restored vintage Steinway grand piano.

Brahms’ “Sonata No. 2 for Cello and Piano” is a full-fledged four-movement symphony for two instruments. Works such as this convince many lovers of Brahms’ music (such as myself) that the 19th century German master was at his best in chamber music – with the exception of his “German Requiem.”

Koen and Livshits caught the explosive turmoil of the first movement, the delicate lyricism of the second, the passionate syncopations of the third, and the sunny melodiousness of the fourth. Their playing was characterized by superb ensemble and balance, with Koen’s cello singing like a master of German lieder (art song) and Livshits’ Steinway proffering the full panoply of orchestral textures in flawless collaboration.

Poulenc’s “Sonata for Cello and Piano” is a marvelous compilation of many contrasting yet sympathetic styles. The Frenchman was a master of pulling together into one score many of the characteristics of musicians who wrote before him and then molding them into a seamless fabric uniquely his own. Koen and Livshits captured the Sonata’s sophisticated high spirits on one hand, as well as its lonely melancholy on the other. Their playing both bubbled and ached convincingly.

Bridge’s two-movement “Sonata for Cello and Piano” breathes in-and-out the “perfumed air” ( Koen’s introductory words) of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That quality is remarkable considering that the work received its premiere in 1918, the year World War I finally came to a carnage-filled end if not conclusion. Even in the middle of such societal brutality, composers of Bridge’s lifetime (1879-1941) were still able to conceive and produce music of great beauty. It’s a gift we should envy, for it sometimes seems that the stench of our own time has snuffed out almost all beauty in nearly all the arts.

Perhaps because of that beauty, the “perfume in the air,” Koen and Livshits gave the score a glowing reading. Koen’s cello sang with operatic scope and intimate lyricism while, once again, Livshits conjured up a kaleidoscope of colors from the church’s splendid Steinway.

“Five Fridays”

The previous evening, over at St. Paul’s Church, the recital featuring soprano Helen Zhibing Huang and pianist Andrew Hauze was not just a tale of two churches – it was also a tale of two Steinways. While both St. Paul’s and PCCH own vintage Steinway grands that have been restored, the two pianos are not of equal quality – at least not in my opinion.

Whereas PCCH’s Steinway grand is a masterwork that beautifully evokes the sound of turn-of the-20th-century Steinways – mellow, but clear – the instrument at St. Paul’s sounds as though it were wearing a woolen mute.

The result during Friday evening’s performances of music by Barbara Strozzi, Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn, Hugo Wolf, Lili Boulanger, Chen Yi, Poulenc and Gu Jianfen was the reduction of Hauze’s efforts to accompanying musings except in the Boulanger and Poulenc pieces. While that certainly proffered a situation in which the audience could easily appreciate Huang’s lovely voice and excellent musicianship, it denied her – again with the exception of the French repertoire – a fully-voiced musical collaborator.

In both the Poulenc and Boulanger scores, Huang and Hauze came together in colorfully articulated phrases that projected the narrative of each text. In the other selections, however, the absence of a broad palette of pianistic tones – through no fault of Hauze, I hasten to add – hobbled Huang’s interpretive scope and the audience’s enjoyment of it. Yet through it all, Huang displayed an expressive voice and exceptional interpretive skill.

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