With the last, blazing chords of the Dvořák Piano Quintet in A, Op. 81 still resounding in the air at the Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton, Saturday evening, August 9, an enthralled audience rose as one to salute the conclusion of a festival well done, a rousing tribute “Bridging Dvořák” and his celebrated musical colleagues, contemporaries, and beneficiaries. The rather top-heavy program – demanding almost ninety minutes’ concentration of both performers and auditors before intermission – consisted of music by Smetana, Dohnányi, Schulhoff, and Dvořák, as executed by robust and alert assemblage of musicians thoroughly dedicated to the cause of crafted chamber ensemble.
The program began with violinist Alexander Stikovetsky and pianist Anne-Marie McDermott’s vibrant performance of Smetana’s two-movement From My Homeland (1880), a salon piece that declaims the composer’s Bohemian identity in alternately plaintive and boisterous terms. Sitkovetsky announced the warm A Major section in nostalgic figures that soon adopted the minor mode. A slow introduction and nice balances between violin and piano led to the vivacious skoena, a national dance in the composer’s personal syntax that ended in a blistering Presto and the first of many outbursts of audience applause.
Music by Ernõ von Dohnányi, his 1904 Serenade in C Major, Op. 10 for Violin, Viola, and Cello ensued, masterfully realized by Alexander Sitkovetsky, Paul Neubauer, and Narek Hakhnazaryan, respectively. Conceived in an essentially late-Romantic idiom after Brahms, the piece takes its structural cue from the Mozart Divertimento, K. 563. Dohnányi invokes a “symphonic” style by having the opening Marcia triple-stopped by the three players. Once more, and throughout the evening violist Paul Neubauer would transfix us with the luminous quality of his instrument’s burnished tone. Has anyone noted that Neubauer resembles the late Joseph Szigeti, reincarnated on a tenor instrument? Neubauer’s singing tone in the Romanza movement particularly arrested our sensibilities. The writing, consistently distributing equal emphases to the principals, utilized any number of canon and fughetta effects – as in the manic Scherzo – to extend the musical development. Typical of his “structural” tradition, Dohnányi concocts a bold Rondo finale whose running scales and double stops eventually embrace the theme of the opening March, so rife with the elan of our players that we were loath to hear the colorful work end.
Now the mood altered drastically, with a select six string players’ having gathered to perform the 1924 String Sextet of Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff, a progressive but eminently tragic piece whose often eerie, angst-ridden, and somber colors well instantiate the troubled times of Weimar Germany and our own “interesting” historical situation. Viola Yura Lee often distinguished herself in this gloomy, lyrical work, introducing a chromatic line in acerbic colors, plagued by cross-rhythms and jarring effects both con sordino and col legno. Each movement seemed to mark another Apocalypse, often ending á la T.S. Eliot, with a whimper. The grinding course, however, often assumed bleak and bitter paths, especially in the Tranquillo movement, in which cellist Dmitri Atapin lent a mournful air while the two violins – Nicolas Dautricourt and Benjamin Beilman – added an unnerving tremolando upon their instruments’ bridge to heighten the misty tension of the atmosphere. The chthonian descent continued through a sarcastic Burlesca and then concluded, Molto adagio, a movement well akin to any of Bartok’s Mesto designations. How often the dire epithet, Nacht und Nebel, came to mind with its ghoulish associations of the Holocaust that eventually consumed Europe and the fate of this gifted composer.
The second half of this audacious and more-than-generous concert consisted of one happy piece, Dvořák’s 1887 Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 81. From first to last, Dvořák’s mastery of form and content proves seamless, the musical transitions colorful, the melodic material so rich that Brahms commented that whole symphonies could be wrought of what Dvořák tosses off in two measures! Famed conductor Vaclav Talich, called upon to report to Dvořák’s Prague Conservatory office, would remark without irony, “I am summoned before the god.” Anne-Marie McDermott, her keyboard a kaleidoscope of glittering, balanced colors, complemented her fellow principals, Beilman and Sitkovetzky, violist Neubauer, and cellist Hakhnarazyan. Each of them enjoyed moments of sonic splendor, but Dvořák’s chosen instrument, the viola, has many a vocalized hymn in this composition. A mutual brio marked every bar of this reading, a shared delight in ensemble and nimble, brisk execution. If the conclusion of the second movement Dumka gave us Slavonic charm, so did the rapt middle section of the Scherzo provide spiritual solace, in which time seems suspended in harmonized glory. The Finale: Allegro simply put an exclamation point on con amore for this score, ending as it does with Dvořák’s patented “. . .and so my children” epilogue that somehow reminds us of Schumann.
As I left the Performing Arts Center, I could hear cries of jubilation well into the parking lot.