With Alice Tully Hall undergoing renovations, several local classical groups have shifted their performances to the Society for Ethical Culture, a sacerdotal building just down the block from the renovation site. One of these ensembles is the granddaddy of them all, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which presented a very fine program of Romantic Russian music on Sunday afternoon.
Modest Mussorgsky collaborated with his roommate and distant relative Count Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov on two dark cycles of songs — Sunless, and Songs and Dances of Death, the second of which was offered on Sunday. Accounts vary as to whether the composer wanted to expand the latter grouping, but there is little doubt that he had plans to orchestrate it (there are indeed several orchestrations, but these were all fashioned after Mussorgsky's untimely death). In their basso and piano version — they are also sung by contralto — these thanatological masterpieces were ably presented by Morris Robinson and pianist Ken Noda.
The hall is designed in an odd configuration for sound, in that it is approximately as wide as it is deep. As it is coupled with a cupola-type ceiling that dominates over only two stories, finding the right spot for ideal listening can be tricky. But there was little concern when Mr. Robinson intoned his phrases, as his rich, resonant depth surrounded those of us in the balcony like a warm blanket during a frigid night on the steppes.
Mr. Robinson had the measure of these songs and hit all of his notes in their exact center, exhibiting no strain whatsoever. The tessitura here is quite subterranean, and most versions, especially live ones, can appear labored and unnatural. Mr. Robinson's gift is his ability to phrase smoothly even in the roughest of passages. Although I am spoiled for these particular aural vignettes because of the tremendous artistry of Polish contralto Ewa Podles, I was quite impressed with this current rendition, an impressive pairing of a confident and rousing singer with a descriptive, dexterous, and suitably self-effacing pianist. Now that Mr. Robinson has conquered these depths, he can work on moving to the next level: imbuing his realizations with more character-laden narrative. No stranger to the opera house, he has consistently shown the talent to portray a given personality. There is much rich material here that he has yet to explore.
Along with the popular Piano Trio of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, the Lincoln Center players presented a true rarity. Anton Arensky studied with Rimsky-Korsakov (who didn't?) and was one of a motley crew of students who composed pieces on the death of Tchaikovsky. Arensky's work is a string quartet, but with a difference. The foursome — Ian Swensen, violin, Paul Neubauer, viola, and Julie Albers and Ralph Kirshbaum, cellos — achieved an extremely pleasing string blend from the outset. Having two cellos instead of a pair of violins made for some gorgeous vibration, and much of the work itself shows promise.
The middle set of variations on a theme of Tchaikovsky was a tad soporific, but the outer movements were exhilarating and bracing. The first movement relies heavily on folk themes, while the last begins very similarly to one of the movements of the 13th quartet of Beethoven and quickly quotes from that famous Russian theme "Slava," which, in a muddle of geographical styles, most of us associate with the second of the Rasumovsky quartets of the Bonn master.
The work as a whole was recommended to the society by Mstislav Rostropovich, coincidently nicknamed Slava, and so codirector Wu Han dedicated this performance to his memory. The four participants honored that memory profoundly with exceptional musicianship.