Musical partnerships between New York and London have become ever closer over the past decade. Alongside shared productions between the Metropolitan Opera and English National Opera, and the annual residency of the New York Philharmonic at the Barbican, it is good to welcome back the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center to Wigmore Hall.
On this visit CMS, as it is known, brought six of its most closely connected musicians. They included joint artistic directors David Finckel and Wu Han, cellist and pianist, and former director, clarinettist David Shifrin; and, as a reminder that the organisation has commissioned more than 150 chamber works in its 45-year history, the programme included a new piece by Chinese-American composer Zhou Long.
Two pianists shared duties for the evening with contrasting results. In the first half Wu Han was the gentler spirit, drawing mellow playing from her colleagues in Beethoven’s Piano Quartet in E Flat, Op. 16, the composer’s transcription of his Quintet for Piano and Wind, though early Beethoven can usefully take sharper accents. In Brahms’s Clarinet Trio the same warmth and blend of sound was perfectly judged, with violinist Benjamin Beilman and cellist Finckel matched like mirror images as they passed their lyrical lines back and forth.
Zhou Long’s Tales from the Nine Bells takes its inspiration from a poem by eighth-century Li Bai about the legendary bells of China that ring spontaneously (“I thought I could hear the pines of a million canyons”). We do not hear Tang dynasty “frost-bells”, or even much ringing, in this quartet for piano, clarinet, violin and viola, but the sounds are delicate and haunting – plucked piano strings, eerie violin harmonics, lute-like strummings. The tiny musical cells of ideas come and go, but the distinct sound-world, with its echoes of China (a bit like Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol), is entirely consistent and atmospheric.
Throughout the second half the pianist was Inon Barnatan and his brighter, more assertive playing helped to sweep along Fauré’s Piano Quartet No. 1, Op. 15, on an irresistible tide of romantic elation. The visitors from Lincoln Center will be welcome back as part of the ongoing transatlantic musical exchange.