Despite the frontal attacks launched against it since the end of the last century, musical Romanticism has turned out to be unkillable. In a wonderfully programmed and played concert Saturday evening at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, the Theater Chamber Players turned their attention to the lush, although sometimes nervous, Romantic strain that has been so pervasive in modern European music.
Scho nberg's "Ein Stelldichein" ("A Trysting Place"), is an early fragment written, like the famous "Verkla rte Nacht," as a musical recreation of a poem by Richard Dehmel. Scored for oboe, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, the piece has a dark tone that was enhanced by the broad tempo the Players chose for their performance. So slow was the tempo, in fact, that at least this listener was uneasy with it until the point became clear: despite its Wagnerian chromaticism, the spirit that hovers over the piece is that of Brahms, and the Brahmsian cello solo near the end of the fragment, eloquently played by Gary Hoffman, really bloomed at this tempo and concentrated the mood of the work perfectly.
Like the Scho nberg, Hindemith's "He'rodiade" was composed as an evocation of a poetic work, this time from Ste'phane Mallarme''s obscure poetic drama of the same name. It drew from the composer, so often the severe classicist, some surprisingly lush music. The piece originally was commissioned in 1944 as a ballet by Martha Graham, but Hindemith subsequently stated his preference to have it performed without dance or recitation, as absolute music. Despite the beauty of some of its sections, and unlike Scho nberg's "Verkla rte Nacht," the music has difficulty standing on its own. The scoring, for string quintet (including double bass), wind quintet and piano, permits dialogues between strings and winds that have a narrative character and cry out for a program. Without it, the piece has an episodic quality that seems at odds with musical form.
Nevertheless, the Theater Chamber Players obviously love the work, and their performance, forcefully conducted by Leon Fleisher, made a strong case for it. He was helped by beautiful solo playing, most strikingly from pianist Dina Koston, flutist William Montgomery and bassoonist Lynette Diers Cohen.
The final work on the program was also the most obscure: Franz Schmidt's 1926 Quintet in G major for piano left-hand and string quartet. The work was one commissioned by the pianist Paul Wittgenstein after he lost his right arm in World War I. With its Viennese lilt and slurpy chromaticism, this quintet could have sounded insubstantial and overextended in a lesser performance. But Fleisher's affinity with the piece, and the passion and affection in his playing of the left-hand piano part, focused the performance into the highlight of the evening. The four string players, including Hirono Oka, who stepped in at the last minute to replace ailing Hyo Kang as second violinist, made the most of the piece's charm. It would be a treat to hear Schmidt's A-major Quintet, with its fascinating variation movement, played with his kind of style.