The city of Berlin provided the cultural venue for the indubitably successful concert from [email protected], Saturday, July 28, at the Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton. Music by Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and Mendelssohn elicited a series of dazzling ensembles in seamless harmony, since each of the representative composers had found in Berlin receptive sponsors who fostered their artistic growth or challenged their native ingenuity.
Beethoven in 1796 appeared before Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia, himself an amateur cello player and whose principal, court cellist Jean-Louis Duport, encouraged Beethoven’s Opus 5 Cello Sonatas. David Requiro and pianist Gilles Vonsattel collaborated in the F Major Sonata, Op. 5, No. 1, likely the first “real” such sonata for two expressive equals in the modern repertory. Besides the lovely tone of Requiro’s two hundred year-old instrument, we could well savor the many demands Beethoven imposes on his executants, with double-stops, multi-octave arpeggio figurations, and a soaring cantabile from the cello’s tenor register, all such facility the standard set by Duport. In two large sections, of which the first movement subdivides into a lengthy, slow sostenuto period and then bursts into an Allegro, followed by a Rondo last movement, the work retains a sunny, jovial atmosphere despite its somber opening. Vonsattel’s contribution certainly indicated the fleet virtuosity Beethoven possessed as a purveyor of his own works. Among Vonsattel’s many virtues shone his ability to subito, to reduce the dynamics of his runs and chords so as not overwhelm the stringed instrument. The Allegro movement enjoyed a fierce volatility, typical of the Beethoven who was yet to emerge stylistically. After a particularly lyrical, somewhat cautious Adagio, this movement surged with a power that, despite its structural, balanced basis in the Mozart or Haydn style, added a new energy, one that the Rondo only supplemented with wit and verve, as in the charming echo-effects between the instruments, or the gypsy-style tune that appeared in the minor mode.
The year 1789 proved trying for Mozart, who undertook concert tours of Leipzig, Dresden, and Berlin; the last city afforded Mozart the opportunity to compose six quartets for the same Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia, although Mozart completed only three such works. The work in question this evening, the String Quartet in D Major, K. 575, reveals virtually nothing of Mozart’s economic and emotional distress. In fact, as realized by the Calidore String Quartet — Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violins; Jeremy Berry, viola; and Estelle Choi, cello — we could bear witness only to the polished security of Mozart’s late style, which exhibited an ease and transparency of texture and an astonishing ability to balance all aspects of his means of expression. The opening undulations of the first movement well anticipate the effect in the later Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat, K. 595. After eight measures, we have heard smoothly aerial rising arpeggios versus falling scales, a pattern Mozart maintains in a thoroughly illumined style. When Mozart inverts the falling scale, he uses it to jar us with its new impetuosity, as in the recapitulation. In the midst of the various weavings and interactions among the instruments Choi’s cello sang with a fervent ardor that mesmerized us throughout the quartet.
The Andante movement in A Major seemed like an operatic aria for instruments, laid out in three ideas that traversed some minor harmonies but rounded off by having a colloquy between the first violin and cello. If the slow movement possessed any gravity as such, it could only have been in the luxury of melodic invention Mozart lavished upon us for a pittance of its true value, what he lamented as “a mere song, in order to have some cash on hand.” Choi’s cello had another opportunity sing out in the Trio of the Menuetto: Allegretto, an optimistic moment that teases us with syncopated digressions into brief incursions into the minor. Mozart sped up the material of his first movement for his Allegretto finale, especially finding interest in the first six notes of the cello tune. Between breaking the notes into permutations and dynamic contrasts, Mozart uses triplet figures and various contrapuntal techniques — not failing to mention some fine sonorities in Berry’s viola — to keep this Rondo active, a virtuoso demonstration from the Austrian wizard of harmony and invention.
In 1747, J.S. Bach ventured into the Prussian court of Frederick the Great, a gifted flute player and devoted sponsor of the arts. Frederick challenged Bach to embellish upon a clavier theme, first for three voices and then for six. Bach managed the three voices, but he demurred on the six, stating the given theme could not sustain such development. Later, however, Bach found enough potential to render his Musical Offering, a learned collection of variants on the “King’s Theme.” Flutist Stephanie McNab and the Calidore String Quartet judiciously selected but four movements from this audacious work, an epitome of the contrapuntal art. The opening Ricercare a 3 in C Minor well illustrated Bach’s abilities in strict polyphonic style, moving to the fifth for the second voice after the original statement, then weaving in the third voice until a solemn tapestry evolved whose “passion,” if so enunciated, lay in the power of the mind to project numbers and intervals and their variations as symbols of a cosmic unity. The ensuing – albeit brief – Canon 2 a 2, for two voices, had the violins in unison; the Canon 1 a 2, for two voices, invoked a “crab” or cancrizans motion, with one player’s starting at the beginning while the other began at the end, the kind of ingenuity that we find equally dazzling in the Variation 15 of the Goldbergs. The final “offering,” Fuga canonica in epidiapente, led the King’s Theme along quicksilver figures set a fifth above the two voices that first led the procession. A moment of stern, mental prowess and musical dexterity, the piece resists the “popular” taste, and so the excursion, kept restricted, remained effective for the Menlo audience.
If sheer “melodic” joyfulness had been wanting, the music of Mendelssohn, his Piano Trio No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 66 (1845) filled the bill. In 1841, Mendelssohn had been appointed Director of the Music Section of the Academy of Arts in Berlin – this by King Frederick William IV of Prussia. The musicians for the Trio — Wu Han, piano; David Finckel, cello; and Arnaud Sussmann, violin — seemed exceedingly intent on realizing Mendelssohn’s indication, Allegro energico e con fuoco for his first movement, for this opening section surely caught fire. Mendelssohn’s aggressive sonata-allegro writing moved with relentless tension, Han’s keyboard a series of sixteenth swoops and runs, while the two strings could sing luxuriantly — and Sussmann’s violin tone assaulted the heavens — a lovely, arching duet in the major mode. The Andante espressivo, as often noted, provides yet another of those “songs without words” that virtually defines Mendelssohn’s salon-style.
For his Scherzo: Molto allegro, quasi presto Mendelssohn reverts to the skittish figures of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that elfin, fairy-land sensibility with the deft finesse of spider-thread texture. The Finale: Allegro appassionato has two competing impulses: a potent, leaping subject that Finckel launched from his throaty cello, and a grand chordal passage from Han’s piano. Scholars like to point out — much in the manner of Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony — that Mendelssohn exploits the hymn Vor Deinem Thron as his source for instrumental elaboration. Whether the music adheres to Jewish or Christian standards of aesthetic or ecumenical taste soon became moot, since the audience, virtually in critical mass since the first movement’s final cadence, was more than prepared to explode in raptures when the last chords sounded, and delighted pandemonium roared through Menlo.