On Saturday evening at Sunset Center, Chamber Music Monterey Bay presented a return engagement by members of Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and once again we were treated to ensemble playing of the very highest order. Although we all know how important it is to make a good first impression, sometimes it is the last impression that remains indelibly in our mind. So it was last night when an encore performance at the end of the concert proved to be the most surprising musical event of the evening.
When the musicians, pianist Gilles Vonsattel, violinist Arnaud Sussmann, and cellist Paul Watkins returned to the stage to take their final bows before a wildly cheering audience, it was noted that one of its members, violist Paul Neubauer was conspicuously absent. Cellist Watkins addressed the audience to tell us that he was going to reveal a secret about Neubauer — that somewhere in his past were some mud-stained Gypsy ancestors, and we were about to hear an example of it. Suddenly we became aware that Neubauer had materialized in the front row of the audience and was playing a sobbing, throbbing, sighing Gypsy violin solo as he strolled up the aisle. Gradually, the other members of the ensemble joined in (with some fascinating Hungarian cimbalom effects from pianist Vonsattel) while remaining in place on stage. We sat spellbound as the piece gradually increased in intensity to a wild, furioso ending. We were hearing an old-world, eastern European and utterly charming work by Hermann Schulenburg — his Puszta-Marchen (Gypsy Romance and Czardas). This piece magically transported us back to the last years of Vienna’s end-of-the-19th century Belle Époque, where such music as Schulenburg’s was standard fare in boulevard cafés. It was just so magical you wanted to hear it over and over again.
This is in no way to demean what we heard earlier in the evening. The opening work, Beethoven’s Quartet in E-flat Major for Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello, Op. 16, received a masterful performance with outstanding playing from each of the players. Pianist Vonsattel dazzled us with his easy virtuosity, which always served musical purposes and never got in the way of the important repartee contributed by his partners. Cellist Watkins, in the Andante cantabile second movement spun magic for us that was echoed by violinist Sussmann and violist Neubauer. The final Rondo movement was another showstopper movement, where all the players made the music come to life in a spectacular manner.
The novelty of the evening was Ernõ Dohnányi’s Serenade in C Major for Violin, Viola and Cello, Op. 10. Dohnányi has the reputation for, although living from 1877 to 1960, never having been inspired to follow the modernist paths adopted by Hungarian composers like Bartók or Kodály. Instead he followed his love for German post-Romanticism, and thus the early work we heard on this program had a strong affinity to the music of Brahms. Especially outstanding on this occasion was the lovely playing of violinist Sussmann and cellist Watkins in the Romanza second movement, and the fine ensemble playing in the amazing final Rondo, which was full of surprises and spiky rhythms.
After intermission the concert ended with a high-voltage performance of Dvořák’s Quartet in E-flat Major for Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello, Op. 87. The opening movement was appropriately con fuoco, the lyrical Lento movement and Tema con variazoni seduced us with their charm, and the Scherzo and final Rondo movements just kept rolling out more magic moments. Pianist Vonsattel blazed his way through what seemed like another piano concerto movement in the final Rondo, and once again he made it all look very easy.
Since this performance will be broadcast on KUSP 88.9 FM at 7 am on Sunday, March 27, 2016, anyone who wants to hear this magic music making again (and especially the Gypsy part) is advised to tune in.