Classical musicians face enormous expectations when they play a standard repertory work. Listeners have strong feelings about favorite pieces, even when they are open to fresh interpretive approaches.
The stakes are even higher with a premiere. Performing a new piece becomes an act of advocacy to pull an audience in.
An example of this advocacy in action was the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s presentation of the New York premiere of Jonathan Berger’s “Rime Sparse” (Scattered Rhymes) for soprano, violin, cello and piano at Alice Tully Hall on Sunday. The performance was part of a program titled “Love Sonnets” that also included works by Franck, Ravel and Dvorak.
The beguiling young soprano Julia Bullock was the soloist in Mr. Berger’s mysterious and hazy 22-minute work — settings of seven love poems by Petrarch. She was joined by the violinist Arnaud Sussmann, the cellist Daniel Müller-Schott and the pianist Wu Han (co-artistic director of the society).
These artists, who had given the piece’s premiere on March 8 in Chicago, brought urgency and conviction to every moment of the performance. Even when I felt reservations about the music — its atmospheric palette of colorings sometimes seemed unvaried — my resistance was swept away by the spasms of intensity and eerie beauty these exceptional musicians drew from the score.
Petrarch, the 14th-century Italian poet and scholar, wrote his enormous collection of love poems, sonnets and fragments over 40 years. The object of his impossible love is thought to have been a younger married woman.
In this work Mr. Berger, who teaches music and cognition at Stanford University and has written unusual operas about auditory hallucinations, explores the psychic dimensions of desire embedded in these verses. At least that’s what came through to me.
In the first setting, the poet addresses those who hear in his “scattered rhymes” the sighs that fed his heart when he was carefree, a different man from today. The instruments set the mood: The piano plays thick, grating chords that split into glancing strands of delicate notes, as the violin and cello sustain tonally murky sonorities and break into soft, oscillating squiggles. The soprano line shifts from phrases of aching lyricism to chantlike declamations.
“My ship passes,” the second one, introduces a metaphor that runs through the other poems Mr. Berger chose: of a rudderless ship passing “in oblivion through rough sea.” But the music conveying this image seemed anything but rudderless, with slashing, dissonant piano chords, toccata-like streams of rushing notes from the violin, and buzzes and sputters from the cello.
The soprano sings in plaintive phrases of disarming poignancy in parts. Yet, the lines keep slipping into fractured, volatile passages where not just words, but single syllables are obsessively repeated. The instruments sometimes cushion the vocal line with mystical, piercing harmonies, until emotions break loose and the music becomes fiendish.
Sometimes when the poems turned dreamy and yearning, I thought the music missed a chance to reflect these emotions more directly. To her credit, Ms. Bullock brought out every expressive subtlety and ambiguity in her ravishing performance. Just a few years ago she was utterly charming as the title character in Janacek’s “The Cunning Little Vixen” in a Juilliard Opera production. Today, the youthful bloom of her sound is combined with depth and maturity that seem beyond her years.
She was also wonderful on Sunday in Ravel’s “Cinq Mélodies Populaires Grecques,” the composer’s elegiac settings of Greek songs, accompanied colorfully here by Ms. Wu. It was a good idea to precede the Berger premiere with the Ravel, a piece that also explores desire through plush, romantic colors.
The program opened with Franck’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in A in an ardent, bold performance by Mr. Müller-Schott and the formidable pianist Michael Brown. Though Franck wrote this great 30-minute work for violin and piano, violists and even cellists (playing a later arrangement of the piece) have not been able to resist it. Mr. Müller-Schott’s dark, penetrating sound lent richness and depth to phrases more familiar from a shimmering violin.
The program ended with Dvorak’s Piano Quartet in D (Op. 23), with the violist Paul Neubauer joining Mr. Sussmann, Mr. Müller-Schott and Mr. Brown. It was a lively, dynamic performance. After the musical adventures of the first half, however, Dvorak’s genial quartet was something of a letdown.
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