While [email protected]’s 12th season dedicates itself to Around Dvořák as its theme, the concert of August 2 at the Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton addressed “Transitions” by way of Brahms, Webern, Janáček, and Dvořák himself. The range of musical genres made for an impressive and variegated program: the Brahms Klavierstücke, Op. 118; Webern’s Two Early Pieces and Three Little Pieces; the Concertino of Leoš Janáček; and the Dvořák Sextet in A, Op. 48.
Pianist Wu Han inaugurated the evening with a brief lecture on the Brahms Six Pieces, Op. 118 (1892-93), comprised of four intermezzi, one Romanze in F, and a Ballade in G Minor. Introspective, melancholy and built from motivic kernels in ternary song-form, these subjective expressions of what the composer called “old bachelor music” look forward to the atomized and pulverized oeuvre of Schoenberg and his acolytes, particularly Anton Webern. Curiously, having declared their intimacy and the need to play them in quick succession, Wu Han began rather percussively in the A Minor, Op. 118, No. 1, marked Allegro non assai, ma molto appassionato. The sighs and polyphony were big but lacked subtlety. Han, however, adjusted well for the most popular of the set, the lovely Andante teneramente in A Major. The No. 4 in F Minor seemed rushed, but the trio section – rife with Schumann and the Brahms Sonata No. 3 in F Minor – had emotional pathos and conviction. The largest of the set, the No. 6 in E-flat Minor, achieved the sonority of a ballade before its opening figure returned once more, only to fade into an autumnal sunset.
Cellist Dmitri Atapine and pianist Hyeyeon Park collaborated in the music of Anton Webern, whose transformation from a devoted romantic in his Two Early Pieces (1899) to a grim expressionist in his Three Little Pieces (1914) could hardly be more dramatic. Suffice it to say that the early Webern, the composer of the symphonic poem In Sommerwind, resonates with melodic charm, warm tonality, and passion, while the later atonal “gestures” merely assemble colliding and often disturbing effects that appear and disappear at will.
The main show-stealer this evening had to be the audacious Concertino (1925) of Czech master Leoš Janáček as he approached his 71st birthday. The Concertino has been described as “a chamber piano concerto” scored for piano plus clarinet, bassoon, horn, two violins and viola. Its primary ethos corresponds to the opera The Cunning Little Vixen, an engagement with the pantheistic world of animals. Kevin Rivard supplied the supple French horn part in the first movement, ascribed to the composer’s encounter with a hedgehog; while pianist Juho Pohjonen made the keyboard a virtual panoply of percussive and parlando colors, brilliant and athletic. Clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein played the E-flat clarinet for the second movement, attributed to a chatty squirrel. The tutti from the remaining players in the last five measures came as a shock. A screech owl supposedly inspired the third movement, Con moto, which featured a stunning cadenza by Pohjonen. All seven instruments created the last movement, Allegro, which plays as a series of variations that “organize” the menagerie. The music, modal, audacious, bluesy, and heavily folkish in the manner of Bartók, took the Menlo audience by storm, since they had virtually “discovered” a new and arresting hybrid of chamber and symphonic form.
Finally, the Menlo string ensemble performed the 1878 Sextet in A by Antonin Dvořák, a composition that well serves his Bohemian roots and his personal idols, Schubert, Smetana, and Brahms. Here, viola player Paul Neubauer took the berries, his strong tone and smooth finish in his part’s providing a natural lead-in for Dvořák’s tunes and a wonderful antiphon for first violin Arnaud Sussmann’s concertante flourishes. The weakest movement of the Dvořákseems his first, whose gentle theme barely sustains the development – however contrapuntal – to which Dvořák subjects it. When it comes to the interior movements and their national styles – dumka and furiant – Dvořák sings in perfect ease and rhythmic security, the second movement’s dreaming countered by the third movement’s dancing. The Slavonic moods had the audience rocking and tapping in the final movement, a theme and variations that exploits Schubert’s lessons in romantic harmony – B Minor, A Major and D Major – while exploding with passions and colors out of Smetana. With an accelerated coda, a rising stretto in multicolored layers, the Sextet concluded to a spontaneous tumult of appreciation from the packed house.