Sonorous Sweep: The Romantic Revolution at Menlo

Photo by Anna Kariel

While only three chamber music works comprised the [email protected] concert of the July 26 Concert Program No. IV at The Center for Performing Arts, Menlo-Atherton, the brilliant artistry by which these works – Schumann’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D MinorOp. 63; Chopin’s Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 65; and Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 87 – found realization so illuminating that they seemed to exemplify their motivic rubric, “1840-1850: The Romantic Revolution.”

The program began with Robert Schumann’s 1847 D Minor Piano Trio, the first of three such chamber compositions that exploit the keyboard in conjunction with those stringed instruments that add timbre, deft figurations, and subtle harmonic color to the musical context. Our principals – Angelo Xiang-Yu, violin; Keith Robinson, cello; and Juho Pohjonen, piano – came fully prepared to obey Schumann’s explicit directive to play Mit Energie und Leidenschaft, with energy and passion.  From a pungent opening chord, the music flowed 4/4 in sonata-form, both expansive and vigorously intoned, the main theme urgent, swirling, and intricate. If violinist Xiang-Yu and cellist Robinson consistently applied ardent strokes to all they surveyed, pianist Pohjonen demonstrated a canny ability both to produce rapid, blistering arpeggios while applying that requisite subito that kept his Steinway in perfect dynamic balance with his colleagues to avoid overwhelming the musical edifice. When the music shifted into the relative F Major, Xiang-Yu and cellist Robinson played close to the bridge, sul ponticello, while introducing a new theme to the mix in eerie, hues. 

A kind of stately gavotte or minuet, the Scherzo in F Major asked Pohjonen to play in ¾ time while his collaborators realized a melody in dotted rhythms. The Trio section contained some aspects of the main melody but bathed in a relaxed attitude and rounded with a descending phrase. The third movement presented a wandering song-form to be played Langsam, mit inniger Empfindung, slowly with intimate feeling. The violin began in C Major, but only briefly, soon passing into C Minor and then, in a new melody, into F Major. Violin and cello dominated the context with dialogue in 12/8. In the da capo section, Schumann’s meanderings took us into A Major, as the dominant of the key of the last movement in D Major, entered attacca, without any break. Here, the players literally “took fire,” as Schumann demands, while unifying the musical effect by tying the theme of the finale to that of the first movement, Schumann’s consistent urge to cyclicism. The journey from dark thoughts to energized optimism literally rang with a joyous sweep and breadth of ensemble that set the hearty tone of the entire evening.

Pianist Pohjonen returned to the concert stage with cellist David Requiro to perform the 1846 Cello Sonata in G Minor of Frederic Chopin, among his last, completed compositions. Mounted on a large scale, Chopin’s Cello Sonata owes debts to the composer’s musical ally, Auguste Franchomme (1808-1884), who advised him on the cello part, given that this instrument, after the piano, had remained Chopin’s favorite means for chamber music expression; here, a kind of extended lament for his break with writer George Sand. If pianist Pohjonen extended his plastic capacity for inflamed but controlled keyboard bravura, cellist Requiro presented us a burnished tone and suave grace to illuminate Chopin’s elegant musical lines. A sense of brooding melancholy marked the first movement, Allegro moderato, the cello’s interrupting the piano’s harmonies to state the main theme. A grand exposition imparted a tragic scale to the tune, which then ceded its primacy to a second theme in B-flat Major that Chopin chooses to keep intact whenever it should reappear. The rhapsodic surges between the duo culminated when the two instruments executed bold scale passages in contrary motion. While the lovely, ten-note secondary tune made a brief exclamation, the coda literally took us by storm. 

While admirers of this late Chopin piece point to the Largo third movement as the emotional fulcrum, much could be made for the power this night of the Scherzo, whose hammered energy in the keyboard found a perfect foil in the lyrical outpouring of Requiro’s cello.  Especially in the Trio section, sporting a waltz melody worthy of both Bellini and Massenet, did the mesmerizing aspects of folk song and sincere ardor subdue the otherwise tragic tenor of the music. As per expectation, the lyrical and impassioned Largo movement held us in thrall, an extended cantabile for the cello, which Requiro delivered with silken ease. Among the various miracles of the knotty, explosive Finale: Allegro, Chopin’s unique gift for polyphony marks a tempestuous movement that evolves from militancy to a sense of humorous largesse. What began as dotted rhythm spins either out of control or simply dissipates, relying on harmonic sleight of hand and mesmerizing, instrumental bravura. Our two principals’ mutual ability for stop-on-the dime dynamic adjustment found no less wizardry in their relentless, musical sweep and devotion to Chopin’s mature style, that transcends the tragic circumstances of his personal life.

The richness of the concert found excellent expression in the final selection, Mendelssohn’s 1845 String Quintet No. 2 in B-flat Major, a powerfully virtuosic vehicle for the composer’s expression in a medium developed by Mozart but here finding a Romantic ethos entirely individual to Mendelssohn’s mature spirit. Our gifted instrumentalists – Angelo Xiang-Yu and Jessica Lee, violins; Arnaud Sussmann and Hsin-Yun Huang, violas; and Dmitri Atapine, cello – exhibited a seamless prowess in this often blazing score, in which Mendelssohn’s penchant for concertante violin parts found supreme realization in the energized figure of Xiang-Yu. The opening Allegro vivace set a galvanic tone to the proceedings: assisted by four strings, forte tremolandi in excited eighth-notes, violin Xiang-Yu burst upon the musical setting with a fervor that would not quit. With his masterly exercise of counterpoint, Mendelssohn moved us to the legato counter-theme seamlessly – a trait defining the whole Quintet, given the utter homogeneity of purpose evinced in these harmonized musicians. 

The second movement, Andante scherzando, tripped the light fantastic in staccato e pizzicato colors easily reminiscent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but without falling into repetitious cliché. The real heart of the piece, Adagio e lento, became quite affecting in its melancholic lyricism. Both song without words and stately, edifying chorale in D Major, the music swelled to a profound expression of Romantic Agony, rare in this most breezy and cosmopolitan of German musicians. When in the Allegro molto vivace finale the quintet of musicians played in double or triple stops, the ensemble became undeniably symphonic in scope. Typically, the composer’s deep devotion to J.S. Bach exerted itself in a masterful fugato, sonorously realized, especially in the resonant tones from cellist Atapine. While comparisons inevitably follow the intricacies of harmony and texture in this piece to the composer’s early Octet in E-flat, Op. 20,  we found in this spry exercise in chamber music ensemble a thoroughly original mode of expression, religiously, precisely rendered and completely exhilarating to a fervently enthusiastic audience.  


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