Masterful: [email protected]’s Concert Program V

Photo by Anna Kariel

A quartet of diverse, post-Romantic composers comprised the July 26 Concert Program V of [email protected]’s ongoing survey of Incredible Decades, 1890-1900: Moscow to Montmartre, held at The Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton. Music by Joseph Suk, Claude Debussy, Johannes Brahms, and Sergei Rachmaninov provided masterful vehicles for a literal pageant of accomplished participants while expanding our own horizons on the repertory of this fertile period of imaginative creation.

The colorfully engaging program opened with Joseph Suk’s 1891 Piano Quartet in A Minor, Op. 1, as performed by Gilles Vonsattel, piano; Kristen Lee, violin; Hsin-Yun Huang, viola; and David Requiro, cello. The work itself announced the composer’s designated maturity as a composer, having taken up the composition as an assignment from his teacher and future father-in-law, Antonin Dvorak. Dvorak admired the result strongly enough to recommend the piece for an award at a graduation concert. A potent opening chord, Allegro appassionato, sent an aggressive ensemble forward in long, chromatic lines, the audacities in harmony – such as quick only onto B-flat and C-sharp – neatly vocalized by violin and viola. We could feel a strong individualism at work in this young composer, a lyrical voice not indebted specifically to any national “sensibility.” The attractive secondary theme – a variant on the original motif – gave us a sense of the composer’s economy of means. As for David Requiro’s cello line, that compelling contribution warranted a later query as to the nature of his generous sound, a two-centuries-old Italian instrument of unknown provenance. His canny palavers with pianist Vonsattel proved both arresting and dynamically engaged.

Requito began the lyrical, nocturnal Adagio movement whose underlying series of tritones might hint at darker currents in the music’s surface tranquility. The melody bore a strong resemblance to the Tchaikovsky lied, “None but the Lonely Heart.” With a quickening of the tempo, the music did gravitate into D Minor, though the limpid triplet figures from Vonsattel reassured our optimistic assumptions. A big climactic moment followed by a caesura proved dramatic – only to have the gracious cello draw us in a recitative passage back to the opening, valedictory dream-world, now transfigured in glowing colors.  The finale, Allegro con fuoco, projected a militant, swaggering spirit, interrupted by reviews of past motifs in the earlier movements, that post-Romantic (a la Franck) tendency to cyclic form. By the piece’s coda, we had no less been awed by the fiery playing of violist Huang, for her persistent and unbuttoned emotional conviction.

Debussy’s only published work to bear an opus number, his 1893 String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10 occupies a unique sound world. This night the through-composed masterpiece was performed by the Schumann Quartet: Erik Schumann and Kim Schumann, violins; Liisa Randula, viola; and Mark Schumann, cello.  The opening motif, Animé et très decidé, animated and resolved, bears an aggressive stamp in triplets that provides resources for the remainder of the composition. The energy and harmonic drama embodied in this audacious music still maintains its modal power that hypnotizes and arrests. If the accents and glowing colors alone did not mesmerize us, the drive to a firm G Minor at the coda had us focused entirely on the composer’s novel sound world. The most disarming of the four movements, the Scherzo, took Tchaikovsky’s model in the third movement of his Fourth Symphony, driving a pizzicato version of the original melody under the viola’s statement, bowed, then transferred in leaping form to all instruments. For the recapitulation of this rhythmically and dynamically evocative music, Debussy sets the meter in 15/8, pizzicato, deftly rendered until the last chords fade away. 

The slow movement, Andantino, doucement expressif, has a personal attachment to this reviewer: this music my teacher Jean Casadesus wanted played at his funeral. The ternary song opens in muted harmonies, its intimacy intruded upon only briefly when the players remove the mutes; but still, Debussy insists upon the spiritual quietude at the conclusion, with mutes, the music “to be played as quietly as possible.” The protean nature of the original melody marks the finale: Très modéré – Très mouvemente et avec passion. The hazy form of the melody becomes more assertive, rising in volume as its permutations increase, until all the members of the Schumann Quartet projected fiery harmony in double stops. At the last measures, first violin Erik Schumann rocketed upward, concertante-style, three octaves to a lusty G Major chord, concluding this most idiosyncratic quartet, whose end gave the Menlo audience a pregnant pause before the rapturous ovation ensued.

Solo piano Gilbert Kalish took up the second half of the concert with a stately rendition of the 1892 Three Intermezzi, Op. 117 of Johannes Brahms, the three andante movements a cornerstone of his late style of expression, which he called both “old bachelor music” and “lullabies to my sorrow.” The first of the triptych, the Intermezzo in E-flat Major, takes its source from a Scottish ballad, “Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament,” a cradle-song that wavers between major and minor. The counterpoint in late Brahms, especially in the bass line, points to moments in Debussy. The Andante non troppo second Intermezzo in B-flat Minor bears the most emotional resemblance to the “rainy-day music” epithet in late Brahms. Though Kalish struggled somewhat with the Brahms agogics, he conveyed the music’s emotional austerity in its intertwined melodies, whose middle section becomes lushly bleak, the paradox set in D-flat Major. The last of the set, in C-sharp Minor, always conveys to this auditor the emotional desolation of Kurt Weill’s post-War Berlin. Brahms opens molto piano e sotto voce sempre, an insistence upon inward agony and subjective passion, close in spirit to his beloved Robert Schumann, but more expressionistic, looking ahead to a sad 20thCentury. The sad, chromatic central section bred a sense of bittersweet nostalgia, the final bell tones at last raising a storm of appreciation from the vocal Kalish contingent.

The power of the keyboard dominated the close of the program, with Wu Han and Gilles Vonsattel’s ringing performance of Sergei Rachmaninov’s 1893 Suite No. 1 for Two Pianos, Op. 5. Subtitled a Fantaisie-tableaux the music bears a dedication to Peter Tchaikovsky, and the music rather depicts the progress of a love-affair, but set to four distinctive poems from poets Mikhail Lermontov, Lord Byron, Fyodor Tyutchev, and Aleksey Khomyakov.  The opening Barcarole in G Minor invokes a gondola’s lulling gestures in rippling, water figures we well know from Mendelssohn and Chopin.  Both Vonsattel and Han maintained a glossy, smooth patina throughout, each attuned to dynamic balances. The middle section in G Major possessed a clear note of passionate abandon. The second movement Rachmaninov designates “A Night for Love,” announced militantly and asking for swirls of arpeggios, an effect even more “eddy-fying” in the course of the next movement, “Tears.” For the former movement, Byron’s invocation of bird calls and nightingales provokes Rachmaninov to a pantheistic paroxysm of desire. A four-note pattern obsessed the “Tears” of Rachmaninov, descending in mesmerizing melancholy. This dirge rather revels in its own sadness. But the last movement, “Russian Easter,” impels us to emotional – if not religious – resurrection, the bells of Rimsky-Korsakov now pealing in high dudgeon the liturgy “Christ is risen.” The “holy victory” in Khomyakov’s poem found more earthbound expression in the glow in the two principals, Vonsattel and Han, and the resounding enthusiasm of the jubilant audience.   

End

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