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In a couple of ways, the annual Chamber of Love concert is the granddaddy of musical programming at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. Presented each year around Valentine’s Day, the 2010 Chamber of Love event was the very first concert at the trendy new museum. But this isn’t a Valentine’s Day celebration. When Tanja Bechtler and her Bechtler Ensemble re-gather each year, it’s to remember the birthday – on February 14, 1904 – of the cellist’s grandfather, Hans Bechtler, who started the collection of modern art that has blossomed into the museum bearing his family’s name.
Remarks by VP of programming and research Christopher Lawing only lightly touched the music, dwelling more frequently on the elder Bechtler and the artworks that he loved. At one point in Lawing’s presentation, two images of the same work appeared on the same fourth-floor gallery wall, one of them a projection, the other an original. Yet in a program that included works by Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Arensky the romantic element was certainly not ignored. Tanja Bechtler actually wasn’t onstage quite as constantly as the Ensemble’s pianist, Cynthia Lawing. Nor were violinists Peter deVries and Tatiana Karpova relegated to subsidiary roles when called upon to make their contributions.
The music began amorously enough with Rachmaninoff’s Prelude for cello and piano, largely a showpiece for Bechtler, who lushly sang the melody line on her fine mellow instrument, with occasional touches of abrasion to hint at the composition’s anxiety and urgency. Lawing remained subdued throughout – but never monotonous – generating the waves of accompaniment until the sweet fadeout at the end. The pianist had far more say-so in the ensuing Suite Italienne by Stravinsky, a composer we don’t tend to think of by candlelight. DeVries played violin in this enchanting neo-classical potpourri, Stravinsky’s pocket Pulcinella, selecting the longer of the two suites I’ve seen on record, including a Gavotte with two variations and a Scherzino. When there was a sprinkle of lyrical romance in the Serenata, the second of the seven parts, deVries was an able advocate, mixing some rich double-bowing into the luxuriant exposition. The terrain grew noticeably trickier in the ensuing Tarantella, but deVries was nearly flawless in the ricochet bowing while Lawing made the piece dance with its recognizably Stravinskian flavor. While the Gavotte and its variations offered few difficulties, deVries and Lawing missed none of their mid-tempo charms, but there were moments of caution from deVries as the duo launched into the Scherzino, counterbalanced by some unmistakable flair. The Minuetto was not as light as I’d anticipated, deVries completely at home with its stately mood as Lawing chimed in with vigorous block chords, but it set up the brisk Finale perfectly. There was plenty of back-and-forth as Lawing and deVries leapt into the conclusion without pause, abruptly changing tempo and melody, but the frenetic pace brought the best out in the musicians, teaming perfectly without making eye contact.
The Adagio for cello and piano by Shostakovich was aptly placed between two more substantial works, drawing sweeter sounds from Bechtler – and more throbbing vibrato – than we had heard in the Rachmaninoff. Lawing played with more enthusiasm in the introductory treble passages than the room could comfortably tolerate, but she mellowed beautifully in the accompaniment that followed. While Anton Arensky was the most obscure composer in the lineup, his Piano Trio in D minor merited its place of honor at the end of the evening. All three musicians – Bechtler, Lawing, and Karpova – responded to its vibrant synthesis of elements we find in the trios of Dvořák and Tchaikovsky, while the exquisitely balanced composition (originally dedicated to a cellist) offered ample opportunities for all the instrumentalists to shine. Lawing was able to play much of the turbulent Allegro moderato full-out in the bass clef, but everyone excelled when it was her turn to explore the proud melody. The force of Lawing’s treble was problematical at the outset of the ensuing Scherzo, but again she settled in behind the cello effectively, with charming fills that set the tone. Both Bechtler and Karpova sang their beguiling parts personably, if not to maximum harmonic effect, and the cute little pizzicato ending came off deliciously. Then Bechtler was very eloquent introducing the theme of the Elegia, and here the harmony was far sweeter when Karpova joined in. Lawing delivered her most moving work of the evening introducing the sparkling B theme, but Karpova was equally lovely in the treble. The entire trio pounced on the impassioned opening bars of the Allegro non troppo finale with head-snapping bravado. Between this brooding thunder and the thunder to come, Arensky inserts a beautifully placid section only slightly stained by foreboding that the trio embraced with admirable delicacy. Normally inscrutable as she plays, Lawing couldn’t help smiling as she helped bring back the storm clouds. She, Karpova, and finally Bechtler took turns caressing the last mournful quietude before the crashing finish. There were smiles all around at that point, with good reason.