After a successful and emotional debut on Saturday night with the Philadelphia Orchestra, cellist Johannes Moser was riding high to give a compelling recital at the Saratoga Chamber Music Festival on Sunday afternoon at the Spa Little Theatre.
It takes some guts to appear alone on the stage for a concert’s entire first half, but Moser is used to doing things his own way. He told the crowd that his program choices for that half reflected part of his European Project: Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G Major, Britten’s “Sacher Theme” and Lutoslawski’s “Sacher Variations.” Although he explained that Sacher was Paul Sacher, a noted Swiss conductor, and the theme and the variations were based on a 20th century version of “Happy Birthday,” he never clarified what his Project was all about.
So the crowd was in the dark when after playing the Bach’s opening Prelude, which he started twice because someone’s cellphone kept ringing before an usher had it turned off, was followed by rough, loud chords and atonal lines. “What was that?” someone asked. That was Britten’s “Sacher Theme.”
Then, Moser calmly returned to familiar territory with the Allemande from Bach’s Suite. He progressed through the Courante to the Sarabande and then launched into two of the Lutoslawski variations. These were acerbic, edged, a bit off center with tremolos and slides like sighs. Then it was back to Bach’s two minuets to end with the Gigue.
At intermission, Moser said his Project was really a way to connect the various movements by inserting something unusual or alien into what was comfortable. These different kinds of sounds disturb the ear even as they refresh, so when the more accessible music is heard, a person can grab onto it as being familiar, he said.
It certainly made for riveting listening. Moser played Bach in a very thoughtful, unforced and personally conversational way with subtle nuances, much lift to his phrases and an expert sense of pacing. His ornamentation was judicious if not a bit juicy, especially in the Sarabande. His musical sensitivity showed much thought and intelligence.
There was no excursion into novelty for the second half, as Moser chose Schubert’s marvelously inspired String Quintet in C Major (1828) with violinists Juliette Kang and William Polk, violist Kerri Ryan and cellist Thomas Kraines. The work’s four movements are a bounty of lyricism – charming, graceful, light and soaring. Ensemble work was exceptionally strong with everyone knowing what to do.
Nothing was overplayed, which allowed dynamic levels to hover in the middle zone. This made it easy for details to emerge, to enlarge on dramatic moods or rollicking dance rhythms and to let the music come to the fore. Consequently, the second movement’s serene tranquility was even more transparent as it melded into the anxiously intense inner section, and the finale’s rambunctiousness came as a jolt as the players raced to the end. The crowd jumped to its feet with cheers and whistles.
The next concert on the series is at 8 p.m. Tuesday with the Wister Quartet and friends in Boccherini, Debussy and Dohnányi.