One of the great challenges of Mozart's chamber music is how to honor its numerous, sometimes abruptly shifting, musical affects while maintaining a meaningful through-line.
When performed with care, respect and vigor, these contrasts are witty and occasionally quite wrenching. When done less well, the point of Mozart's fine distinctions goes missing.
Some of the performances in the most recent offering from the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival met this challenge with stellar results, while others needed a bit more precision in their expressive choices.
To start with the really good stuff: the concert featured the return of long-time Token Creek participant Robert Levin. Levin is a scholar, pianist, and composer with a special affinity for those parts of Mozart's oeuvre that are less than securely fixed by notation — cadenzas, unfinished pieces, and the like — and this concert showed his work as both reconstructionist and performer.
The "Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano, K. 442" is a cobbled-together affair, created from incomplete bits of what were originally three separate pieces. These movements were first brought together only six years after Mozart's death, but Levin has drawn on the same incomplete scores as the original compiler to make an entirely new realization.
Rose Mary Harbison (violin) and Rhonda Rider (cello) joined Levin here in what was ultimately a very engaging performance. His playing was both exacting and high-spirited, and Harbison and Rider supported him ably. The second movement, "Tempo di Menuetto," was especially interesting, anchored by a beguiling solo piano sequence that was in turns genteel and forceful. Here Levin's musical intelligence showed through with great clarity.
Even better, though, was the "Concerto in D Major, K. 537," arranged for piano plus chamber ensemble. When Mozart died, the left hand of the piano part about 60 percent incomplete, despite Mozart having himself performed it several times. As with the trio, Levin returned to the same source materials as previous reconstructionists and offered a different result.
All three movements were filled with unexpected sounds and startling juxtapositions. The first movement had episodes of an almost Baroque-sounding archness, while the second was filled with warmth and tenderness. In the third, Levin played with an impressive sense of ease even as the music was intensely dramatic.
The weakest performance of the evening was also the first: the "Divertimento for Horns and Strings" for two violins, viola, bass, and two horns.
Although the composition itself was charming and by turns both witty and dark, the performance overall was in need of polishing. With all due respect to her extensive performance experience, I wish that first violinist Rose Mary Harbison had articulated a greater sense of clarity about those same shifts in affect that Levin handled so well. Moments that should have offered surprise and amusement were frequently muddy and performed with an inappropriately shrill tone that suggested Harbison wasn't quite comfortable.
Overall, the Token Creek Chamber Festival continues doing what it does best-offering high-quality performances in a comfortable, intimate space. It really is a gem, tucked away in the most unexpected of places.