Despite the predictable dollop of Mozart - inevitable, I suppose, in this, the 200th-anniversary year of his death - the Nova Chamber Music Series lived up to its name Monday at the Museum of Fine Arts. For in addition to two works from that master's pen, listeners were offered rarer fare from the likes of Walter Gieseking - yes, the pianist - and Edgard Varese. Even Maurice Ravel.
And somehow the latter three were all of a piece. For despite his German origins, Gieseking's Sonatine for Flute and Piano, written in 1937, breathes the air of France, betraying not only an acquaintance with the music of Franck and Faure but, in the perky finale, an almost Poulencian charm.The result is a lovely work, undeservedly neglected following the charges of Nazism leveled at the pianist-composer after World War II. And here it received a performance to match, Utah Symphony principal flutist Erich Graf's smoothly pointed solos riding easily over Marjorie Janove's pianism, which for all its delicacy communicated both shape and spine.
Graf was also the soloist in Varese's "Density 21.5," written in 1936 to show off the platinum flute of Georges Barrere (21.5 being the density of that metal). More obviously of the 20th century, with its repeated intervals, extreme registers and consciously clicking keys, it likewise betrays an earlier French influence, in this case Debussy's "Syrinx."
To his credit, Graf displayed a lyrical dexterity worthy of that piece. Yet within the long line one admired the flawless grading of dynamics, up and down, and the penetration of his playing - for example, the piercing high-register passages toward the end.
Janove for her part had returned, following intermission, as half of a four-hand realization (the other half being pianist Ricklen Nobis) of the "Feria" from Ravel's "Rapsodie Espagnole" - music we hear a lot, but not in this form. The upshot was a darkly percussive reading that may have borne down a bit heavily in spots but had about it an explosive brilliance.
Nor was their Mozart at all backward, or even all that predictable, as they chose to open this program - Nova's last of the season - with the early B flat major Four-Hand Sonata, K. 358, as opposed to the more familiar K. 448 Sonata in D.
Again the projection was forceful, and about four times as loud as it is likely to have been in Mozart's day. But the exuberance of the first movement carried one along, as did the curvaceous lyricism of the Adagio - here not so slow - and the more deliberately paced finale (marked, ironically, Molto presto).
Less forward was the performance of the A major Clarinet Quintet that rounded out the evening. Ensemble might have been tighter in places and the frequent retunings between movements were definitely in order, at least vis-a-vis the strings (here Ralph Matson and Barbara Scowcroft, violins; Mikhail Boguslavsky, viola; and John Eckstein, cello).
But Edward Cabarga's exposition of the clarinet part could not have been more beautifully controlled, whether in the liquid-toned Larghetto or the artful variations of the finale. And the music itself remains some of Mozart's best, radiating an optimism even his death does not entirely undercut. Or a less-than-first-class performance.