Vienna Transfigured

The “City of my Dreams,” Vienna, provided the spectacular venue for the last of the [email protected] concert series, 2018, Saturday, August 4 at the Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton. Music by Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, and Schoenberg found vibrant, uplifting realization by ensembles thoroughly engaged in style and temperament, concluding the program not so much by frantic applause, but by that thoughtful, mesmerized quiet that followed the long-held, evaporating chords from Schoenberg’s 1899 sextet after the poem by Richard Dehmel.

Pianists Wu Han and Gloria Chien occupied the piano bench for their rendition of the Andante and Variations in G Major, K. 501 of Mozart (1786), a four-hand display piece for Mozart and his sister Nannerl based on an original tune that engenders five variants. Mozart had been supported financially at the time by his publisher Hoffmeister, who also happened to be a member of Mozart’s Masonic lodge. Mozart created 155 measures of music “perfect for entertainment and teaching, as required,” submitted to Hoffmeister. Han and Chien seemed to relish the sheer facility and brilliant clarity of the music’s articulation and design, culminating in Variation 4, which modulated into an audaciously harmonized G minor. As vocal a piece as it is, the music might have suited an operatic milieu; but no less, had it been scored for orchestra, its hearty resonance would made a spicy last movement in a piano concerto, for its alternately ingenuous and martial charm.

The tenor of the program shifted dramatically with the major work of the first half, the 1862 Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34 of Johannes Brahms, as performed by a seamlessly coordinated group of players: Kristen Lee and Bella Hristova, violins; Richard O’Neill, viola; Nicholas Cenellakis, cello; and veteran Gilbert Kalish, piano. In the course of this work and the concluding Schoenberg sextet, not only would the power of the viola part reveal itself, but so would an impassioned performance by Richard O’Neill. Brahms struggled to find the proper vehicle for his ideas for the work, having conceived of the Quintet for strings, two pianos, and finally the form for piano and strings, after the manner of his mentor Schumann. But the music of Schubert drives much of its melodic potency, as in the second movement, Andante, after the Schubert lied, Pause, and the final movement’s Allegro non troppo, taken virtually verbatim form Schubert’s 1824 Grand Duo in C Major, D. 812, a work Brahms knew from his having edited Schubert’s oeuvre. The “borrowings” from Schubert do not diminish the power of the Brahms fertility of craft and imagination: the work soars with motivic impetus, capitalizing on the composer’s capacities for metric aggression and contest, his fine ear for variation, and his mastery of selective counterpoint.

From the outset of the opening Allegro non troppo, we felt the tempered balance of the individual string voices against Kalish’s flexible piano line and his capacity for subdued but incisive dynamics. Often, Brahms restrains the temptation to utilize all four stringed instruments, but instead arranges trios or duos to extend his melodic line. The through-composed four measures — and later a two note cell — that drive the entire composition lend a unity of affect to the piece that can be as emotionally grueling — especially in the composer’s use of triplet figures — as its melodic invention can prove romantically passionate. The lovely A-flat Major second movement certainly provide a needed respite from the hovering intensity of the first; the music in the Schubertian vein moved in conjunct intervals, while the central section of its ternary form utilized an octave leap in its expression, its entry courtesy of the aforementioned Mr. O’Neill. For many admirers of the Quintet, the “Bismarckian” third movement, Scherzo: Allegro, provides the muscle for the work, opening in a nervous 6/8 but soon proffering a visceral, staccato march in 2/4 that proceeds in constant metric variation. A certain obsessive character imbues the movement — the offbeats, the pizzicati, the convergence of its three themes in a merciless stretto — establishes its “German” sensibility, given its dotted rhythm and “learned,” fugal treatment. That Kalish and the selected strings could add to this potent mix its singing character no less made the experience aurally ravishing as it was kinetically undeniable. Finally, the slow, harmonically ambivalent Poco sostenuto (Schoenberg’s “modernist” harmonies) began for the last movement, almost an adumbration of the composer’s first symphony last movement opening, here buttressed by Kalish and his triplet chords. The ensuing tune from Schubert has something of the Hungarian about it, but here in the Haydn style of sonata-rondo. The ensemble played with fervor and resolve, sustaining the Brahms habit of developing even his coda into an independent musical entity. The rush to judgment, long delayed, brought down the house.

The second half resumed with another four-hand piece, the Schubert 1828 Allegro in A minor, D. 947 Lebensstürme, or “The Storms of Life,” a sobriquet imposed by the publisher Diabelli. An emotional severity establishes itself early, with pounding chords announced in light and dark shades, the very essence of the Romantic Sturm und Drang sensibility. Wu Han and Gilbert Kalish rendered the one-movement piece in its dire immensity, a highly concentrated sonata-form whose secondary theme gravitates to Schubert’s love of the sub-mediant harmony, here in A-flat Major. If the repeats of the emboldened first motif gave the disturbed music as sense of the rondo form, the arched, heroic theme seemed to rise up in the manner of a chorale, a wish for metaphysical consolation. While the exposition closes in a tenuous C Major, the climax of the hard-fought resolution comes in A Major, a Manichean journey of often grueling emotional tribulation, played with a force and subdued dignity that well exploded any notion of the salon, or the Schubertiad, in any comfortable sense. 

Arnold Schoenberg wrote his 1899 string sextet Verklärte Nacht after the 1906 poem by Richard Dehmel, a tale of two lovers whose relationship appears marred by the woman’s confession of a pregnancy induced by a man other than her beloved. The notion that the music’s long-drawn progress from D minor to D Major will embrace a sense of reconciliation, if not redemption, inverts the usual conceit that it is woman’s love that proves salutary to a fallen individual. In the same regard, the passing allusions to the Massenet Meditation from the opera Thais embrace the same, inverted morality. If ever a piece of music announces the fin-de-siècle of an age or sensibility, this post-Wagnerian program chamber work succeeds in a manner thoroughly in consonance with its one-movement musical predecessors: the Schubert Wanderer Fantasy and the Liszt B Minor Sonata, each of which sub-divides into distinct “movements.” 

The ensemble – Arnaud Sussmann and Kristen Lee, violins; Richard O’Neill and Matthew Lipman, violas; and David Requiro and Nicholas Canellakis, cellos – seemed remarkably attuned to each other, and the singing voices of each had an opportunity to extend the musical, lyric drama. The piece began with a slow, funereal sehr langsam, the woman’s confession of a moral “death.” With tremolando effects and muted strings, Schoenberg drives the passions of guilt and shame forward, rising to an E Major chord that radiates as a kind of death-wish or post-Tristan love-death. The development alternates in a series of emotional convulsions the patterns of self-reproach and cosmic misery, even as the woman embodies the (amoral) life-force. When the man responds in D Major, the work refreshes each of the former motifs as a sign of redemption, wherein the viola and the violins will embrace ardent, legato figures that, while they retain the intervals of the tragic ground-motif, release their capacity for spiritual comfort, especially in the glowing, pulsating figures in “halo” effect. The entire conception — and its execution — elapsed in such sustained symmetry and homogeneity of motion, that only silence could adequately acknowledge the breadth and poise of creator and recreative artists, a consummation devoutly to be mused.

Photo by Geoff Sheil

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