Program of Mozart, Carter and Schumann features Boston premiere

The Boston Phoenix, 10/11/02
by Lloyd Schwartz

“If you hear us playing two notes together, we’re probably off.” That’s how oboist Peggy Pearson introduced the first local performance — for her Winsor Music Chamber Series at Lexington’s historic Follen Church — of Elliott Carter’s year-old Oboe Quartet, one of the 93-year-old composer’s most ambitious recent works. Pearson was referring to the fiendishly difficult independent rhythms for each of the four players. But she is a master oboist, and her three colleagues were no slouches either: violist Mary Ruth Ray of the Lydian String Quartet and violinist Bayla Keyes and cellist Rhonda Rider (the latter formerly one of the Lydians) of Triple Helix.

The Oboe Quartet has one of Carter’s most striking openings: a series of aggressive string chords answered by a brief honk on the oboe, then more chords and a longer blast on the same note. When I heard the piece this past summer at Monadnock Music, those first bars suggested something like a nose-thumbing oboist giving three disagreeing and disagreeable critics the raspberry. In his illuminating pre-concert talk, composer Peter Child described the oboe as being the figure of insistence and imperviousness. He pointed out what I’d missed: that the quartet is a series of six duets — each instrument getting to play (sometimes only briefly) with a different partner while the others deliver asides. I still couldn’t locate all the duets, because the music is, as Child put it, “constantly transitional,” the segments continually overlapping.

But what an exciting piece this is, despite the demands it makes on one’s attention. What breathtaking variety in the change from the “leggiero” (“lightweight, quicksilver”) Moderato for oboe and viola to the Andante appassionata for oboe and cello. Pearson called the duet for oboe and violin “crazed.” And smack in the middle, as in many of Carter’s works, is the still center, the eye of the storm, marked Tranquillo, the transcendent moment of stasis, calm, quietude. It can’t last but it’s at least possible. There’s a section of eerie pizzicato night music, then more agitation before the final tentative unwinding — longer oboe notes, calmer string chords, a lightly plucked viola string. The performance was a marvel of coordination and musicality.

Preceding the Carter was another of Pearson’s convincing arrangements of a Mozart string quartet (the D minor, K.421) for oboe and strings and then the entire Triple Helix (stellar pianist Lois Shapiro joining her stellar colleagues) in Schumann’s seldom-heard Piano Trio No. 2, in F. The latter has a vigorous folk-like first movement, a songful and soulful slow movement marked — and here played — “Mit innigem Ausdruck” (“With inward expression”), a syncopated dancing third movement that begins like a Kurt Weill tango before becoming more gently touching, and a strong conclusion. Triple Helix’s Beethoven Trio cycle last year at Wellesley College has already become the stuff of legend. This is surely now one of the leading piano trios of our time.