By Cristina Schreil

Manhattan Chamber Players
Le Poisson Rouge, New York City
February 7, 2017

When music has a personal backstory, a voyeuristic thrill often colors the listening experience. Admit it: You listen more eagerly when sensational tales—affairs, death, heartbreak—lurk behind the notes. One can’t help but take a reductionist’s approach to complex works, hunting for signs that specific events inexorably tinged a composition.

This intersection of private details with public stage shone in a pre-Valentine’s Day concert titled “A Year in Gabriel Fauré’s Life: A Love Story.” Members of the Manhattan Chamber Players presented pieces from 1877, when Fauré was 31. Violist Luke Fleming, the ensemble’s founder, was the brains behind this rare program. After sharing with the audience his affection for the composer’s Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 15, (the concert’s finale), Fleming said he unearthed dramatic circumstances upon investigating the work.

For all Fauré knew at the start, 1877 held promise. In January, his Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 in A major, Op. 13, met a joyous reception—Fauré’s friend and former teacher Camille Saint-Saëns was among the many lauding him a master. In July, after years of courting, Fauré became engaged to Marianne Viardot. It seemed a blessed union; Fauré had a thriving professional relationship with her mother, the celebrated mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot. His fiancée’s brother, violinist and composer Paul Viardot, was the dedicatee of the very sonata from months earlier.

Then, in November, it all collapsed. For mysterious reasons, Marianne broke it off.

“He never really was held to understand why,” Fleming says, adding that Fauré’s sunny disposition took a dark turn. He ended his year abroad with Saint-Saëns, who thought a trip would uplift him.

These events inspired a fascinating program concept. The players—Fleming, violinist Grace Park, cellist Michael Katz, and pianist Mika Sasaki—performed Fauré’s 1877 output: Berceuse, Op. 16; Après un rêve, Op. 7, No. 1; the Violin Sonata; and the Piano Quartet in C minor. It’s rare to focus an entire program on one composer, much less one year. It felt refreshingly like an auditory version of a vertical wine tasting. While clear on concept, listeners did need to do some mental gymnastics, as the program followed an emotional arc, rather than the chronological order in which the pieces were written. The concert, Fleming asserts, “tells a story.” Although Fauré wrote Berceuse (serene and buoyant) post breakup, the concert opened with it. The “lullaby” aptly transitioned into Après un rêve (“After a dream”). Although written first, the sonata followed. The piano quartet, partly composed later, made a fitting end.

Le Poisson Rouge in New York’s Greenwich Village was an intimate setting that matched the inward-looking vibe. All that was missing was a nostalgic shroud of French cigarette smoke. It could’ve used a touch less stage lighting, which sapped the coziness of table candlelight.

Independent New York City musicians comprise the Manhattan Chamber Players. Fleming made excellent use of those in his arsenal with compelling arrangements. Katz and Sasaki opened with Berceuse, arranged for cello and piano. Against the piano’s carefree ambling, Katz drew handsome, fruity notes from the lower register, conveying the sumptuous melody with deeper hues. Fleming joined onstage for the beloved Après un rêve in a unique trio arrangement. He opened with tender lyrical lines. The viola’s richness suited the music wonderfully. Katz then entered to a spine-tingling effect. At times the cello, especially in higher octaves, dampened the viola, but overall, I wished I could put them on repeat.

Park took up the baton in an intensely wrought and burnished performance of the violin sonata. Fleming noted earlier it “brims with optimism and youthful love.” Park captured its rhythmic contrasts and emotional crests and falls with all technical muscles flexed.

All four seemed to light up in the piano quartet. Unrolling in a gorgeous surging melody, the strings generated a robust sound in the first movement. The second movement’s opening pizzicati in the strings, rendered as if on velvet slippers, set up peculiar contrasts throughout, between dynamics, keys, and rhythms. The emotional meat was the Adagio, supposedly the well for Fauré’s tears. Some experts insist that Fauré denied the association. But perhaps because the evening built toward this movement, its close harmonies, sweet melody, and weighty suspensions at the end felt especially steeped in somberness. Solo piano passages, after the strings sank away, felt part of a lonely landscape. The zestier finale projected a surprise air of optimism and asserted spunk. The players seemed to run away with it near the end—perhaps they were just pleased that Fauré found his strength after all.

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