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A Sextet From Mendelssohn, Made for Showing Off

11.21.11
Anne-Marie McDermott
The New York Times

By Anthony Tommasini

Mendelssohn was one of the most precociously talented musicians in history, and his cultured, affluent parents knew it. Twice a month their Berlin home became the site of elaborate Sunday musicales featuring members of the family and musicians brought in for the occasion. Like any attention-grabbing teenager, Felix enjoyed showing off.

That was one impression I took from hearing Mendelssohn’s Sextet in D for piano, violin, two violas, cello and double bass, given a crackling performance by members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center on Sunday afternoon at Alice Tully Hall. The sextet, which Mendelssohn wrote in 1824, at 15, was first played at a family musicale. On Sunday it concluded a program in which the main news was the premiere of the American composer Pierre Jalbert’s Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano, a rhapsodic, transparent and skillfully written 16-minute score.

Mendelssohn’s dazzlingly indulgent sextet was a special treat. This four-movement piece of nearly 30 minutes is like a concerto for piano and a deferential roster of strings. The music has Mozartean elegance, with early Romantic flourishes. Mendelssohn wrote the piano part to display what was by all reports his remarkable virtuosity.

The superb pianist here was Anne-Marie McDermott, who dashed off the spiraling passagework, especially in the whirlwind finale, with rippling clarity and élan. Her colleagues (the violinist Arnaud Sussmann, the violists Paul Neubauer and Ani Kavafian, the cellist Nicholas Canellakis and the bassist Timothy Cobb), to judge from their smiles, knew that this was Ms. McDermott’s show. The sextet is more a facile and charming piece than a great one. Still, it was fun to hear, and it won a big ovation.

Mr. Jalbert, born in Manchester, N.H., in 1967, has abundant facility as a composer. The trio opens with sustained, hushed, eerie intervals in the piano and violin, through which the clarinet pierces with an elusive melodic line. This time-stands-still introduction breaks into a mysterious scherzando. A pensive slow movement has passages of tinkling sounds that suggest a harmonically pungent music box. The propulsive finale is nonstop energy, erupting with punchy chords and episodes of scurrying, meter-fracturing runs played in unison.

Smartly conceived for the three instruments, it received a vibrant, colorful performance here by Ms. McDermott, Ms. Kavafian (playing violin) and the clarinetist David Shifrin. For me, the piece gave away its secrets on first hearing. There were few moments in which something extraordinary and strange happened, something that made me want to hear it again to learn more. The society is taking the trio on tour to London (Wigmore Hall was a commissioner, with the Chamber Music Society); Hamburg; and Aarhus, Denmark.

It made musical sense to precede the Jalbert with four moody, searching selections from Max Bruch’s Eight Pieces for Clarinet, Viola and Piano, composed in 1909, played compellingly by Mr. Shifrin, Mr. Neubauer and Ms. McDermott.

To open the program, Ms. McDermott warmed up for her busy afternoon in a finger-twisting arrangement of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” for four-hand piano, where she was joined by Wu Han, the society’s co-artistic director, playing the upper part in a fleet, winning performance.

The next program of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presents Bach cantatas on Dec. 6 at Alice Tully Hall; (212) 875-5788, chambermusicsociety.org.