[email protected]: Incredible Decades

Photo credit: Anna Kariel

Under the rubric “Incredible Decades,” [email protected] presented Concert Program II of its Seventeenth Season on Wednesday, July 17, with a veritable feast of Classical color, manifested in the works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. This night’s decade, 1790-1800, entitled “Beethoven Launched,” had the audience at The Center for the Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton in consistent thrall as a grand array of musicians realized diversely rich scores in vivacious and infectious ensemble. 

The program began with the Trio in D Minor, Hob. XV: 23 (1795) of Joseph Haydn, as performed by Adam Barnett-Hart, violin; Brook Speltz, cello; and Gilbert Kalish, piano. The Molto andante projected at first a dark hue of some menace, a clear resolve to align itself with the Sturm und Drang sensibility of a burgeoning Romanticism. The theme-and-variations possessed its own arsenal of ascending and descending phrases, tonal shifts into major and minor, and sudden, explosive dynamics, sforzato. Yet, Haydn keeps an optimistic tone over the long haul, gravitating into both F and D Major. The ensuing Adagio ma non troppo revealed an intimate, hazy moment of dialogue between the instruments, occasionally intruded upon by the “unwritten” voice of pianist Kalish, who — like Glenn Gould, Rudolf Serkin and Pablo Casals before him – gutturally sings along with his digital maneuvers. The fluid cantabile of the movement, swaying easily between supple violin and cello, proceeded in warm and seamless harmony. The last movement, Vivace, rather moto perpetuo, bounced and cavorted in typical Haydn fashion, rife with “wrong” notes and accents, false resolutions, and quirky pauses that belie the masterly combination of sonata-rondo form over which Haydn exerts total control. 

Enter the peerless style of late Mozart, in the form of his 1791 String Quintet in E-flat Major, K. 614, his final chamber work and easily the most profoundly optimistic score of the evening. Here, the composer’s natural gifts for operatic melody and intricate counterpoint – close in spirit to that in the “Jupiter” Symphony – reveal themselves with an art that conceals art. Mozart was himself a splendid viola player, and his set of quintets featuring a second viola open up a world of expressive possibilities for its unique colors. Pierre Lapointe assumed the honors of second viola; Soovin Kim and Aaron Boyd, violins; Paul Neubauer, viola; and Brook Speltz, cello. The 6/8 Allegro di molto announced a hunting-horn motif that had violinist Kim serving in a concertante manner, solo, in musical palaver that no less called upon the lyrical sonority of Speltz’s cello. The hunting motif proves a telling refrain, even as Mozart’s dramatic development attempts to deny it; but, even after a sojourn into the minor mode, the hunt resumed to the coda, glowing in a homogeneity of burnished ensemble. 

The Andante,consisting of a tune and four variations, sets us a gavotte that introduces rustic elements that capitalized on each of the five instruments’ capacity to add a distinctive color. The opening motif seemed reminiscent of Eine kleine Nachtmusik, and the affect could easily have been adopted by Dvorak. The ensuing Menuetto flouted its descending scales, exploiting sweet colloquy between first violin and first viola, then the two violins and Neubauer’s resonant instrument. The middle section, an Austrian Laendler, no less rich in its passing dissonances and rustic charm, beguiled us with its vocal course over two octaves. If any other composer could relish its delights and instruction, Mendelssohn would be he. Elements of the first movement pepper the explosively witty Finale: Allegro, in which every aspect of compositional and instrumental virtuosity unleashes itself. In the middle of this verve-filled bravura, Mozart delivers a double fugato that proceeds as if it were as natural as breathing. The sheer balance, emotional and musical, brought the house to its feet, not for the last time.

Two relatively youthful works by Ludwig von Beethoven followed the intermission: Trio in B-flat Major for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano, Op. 11 (1797) and Quintet in E-flat Major for Winds and Piano, Op. 16 (1796). The sanguine temper dominated the Clarinet Trio, mostly due to the active, eurhythmically intense playing by clarinet Tommaso Lonquich, who could barely keep his seat throughout his grateful part. But no less decisive in this elated performance were Wu Han, piano, and David Finckel, cello.  Throughout the piece, we felt that Beethoven hones his instrumental skills for woodwind – and even more so in the Wind Quintet – for the symphonic form he would master in his Septet, Op. 20 and then his hard-won Symphony in C Major. The keyboard part, understandably, calls upon pianist Han’s improvisatory powers, which she displayed in no uncertain terms in joyful roulades, ornaments, and adlibitum cadenzas. The exchanges between the three instruments literally foamed with high spirits, cellist Finckel gleefully alert to the syncopated colors and harmonic shifts proffered in the course of the opening Allegro con brio. Finckel enjoyed his own spotlight in the opening of the Adagio, which gave him a lyrical aria soon joined by our illuminated clarinet, Mr. Lonquich, whose galvanic playing would soon amble, dip, and swoon in the Wind Quartet. Beethoven sets his last movement, Tema con variazione, to a comic tune from a Joseph Weigl opera, Pria ch’io l’impegno, meaning before I begin, I must eat. Beethoven subjects this emotional bagatelle to nine variations and finale, over the course of which the inventive shapes, harmonies, and fluency of musical line diminished not a whit, given our brilliant collaborators, and the audience literally rose as one in tumultuous appreciation. 

The Beethoven Wind Quintet finds its heroic model in Mozart’s own such composition, K. 452. Our distinguished ensemble – Stephen Taylor, oboe; Tommaso Lonquich, clarinet; Peter Kolkay, bassoon; Kevin Rivard, horn; and Gilbert Kalish, piano – quickly set the tone of the Grave – Allegro, ma non troppo first movement, in which Beethoven opposes the Mozart template of integrated parts with a sense that the keyboard means to stand apart from his colleagues, more in the form of a concerto for piano and winds, mainly in triple meter. The generally genial demeanor after the Grave (French overture) opening finds one dark moment in C Minor in the movement’s development, but the essentially seamless and transparent colors of each wind player bristled with energy and enthusiasm. When clarinet Lonquich danced in place, French horn Rivard answered with full throttle. The comparative restraint in oboe Taylor did not hide the poise and clean articulation of his playing, which reminded this auditor of the great Ray Still.  

The Andante cantabile, a poised, slow rondo marled dolce, allowed players various decorations, sometimes asking the tutti to sing as one, full-throated voice. In the minor-key episodes, oboe Taylor and horn Rivard delivered an affecting lyric with resonant efficiency. The last movement, Rondo, often reveals Beethoven’s gruff and hearty humor, in which the Haydn model of sonata-rondo form rules. While opera buffa dominates the mood, the piano erupted after one episode into a brief cadenza, in which veteran Kalish shone, to invite the tutti to exclaim with some vehemence. The temporary gloom having parted, the ensemble broke into the dashing coda, and the enraptured audience at Menlo quickly dashed to their collective feet to celebrate the festival’s debut concert for the Seventeenth Season. 


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