in: Reviews

July 20, 2013

“Wind and Whimsy” at Mohawk Trail Concerts

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This evening’s penultimate recital on Mohawk Trail Concerts’ 44th season featured pairs of works on each half by two composers chosen because of the season’s themes of marking a milestone year for a composer, to wit the 50th anniversary of the death of Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) and of featuring works written by their composers when they were very young, such as works composed by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) when he was in his teens.  The “wind” was supplied by Christopher Krueger’s flute and the “whimsy” by the lighthearted nature of three of four of the compositions.

The opener was Poulenc’s 1956-’57 Sonata for flute and piano, one of his best known and most frequently performed chamber pieces, the titles of whose movements reveal their very nature: Allegro malinconico, Cantilena: Assez lent, and Presto giocoso, beginning somewhat dejectedly and ending jovially and brilliantly.  My ears detect an echo of Debussy’s Syrinx in the lovely second movement.  Talented and multi-keyboard-playing (harpsichord, fortepiano, organ, and piano) Gregory Hayes was Krueger’s partner at the presenter’s Steinway B, serial number 190613 (ca. 1919) purchased years ago from the estate of pianist Eugene List and recently restored by the late Robert Loomis, the last instrument on which he worked prior to his passing a week ago, sad event for those of us who knew, liked, and admired him. The reading of the work was masterful: energetic and brilliant.

The composer’s 1943 sonata for violin and piano, Op. 119, followed; it is a marked, stark even, contrast to its predecessor on the program.  It was inspired by the life and work of Spanish poet, dramatist, and minor composer (mostly folk-song settings) Federico García Lorca (1898-1936), who was killed by a firing squad in the early days of the Spanish Civil War; his remains were buried in an unmarked and as yet unfound grave (Poulenc set three of his poems in 1947.).  The work was composed for and premièred on June 21st, 1943 in the 1020-seat Salle Gaveau (at a benefit performance for writers and musicians imprisoned by the Nazis) by the young and extremely talented violinist who studied with George Enescu and won numerous prizes, Ginette Neveu (1919-1949), whose life also took a tragic turn: she died in a plane crash in the Azores while heading out for a concert tour of the US, crash that also took the life of boxing champion Marcel Cerdan, the love of Édith Piaf’s life and inspiration for and dedicatee of one of her most famous songs: Hymne à l’amour—an event from which she never truly recovered, and whose fame obscured the tragic loss of Neveu in the news media of the time.  It was said that Neveu’s body was found clutching her Stradivarius; ironically, Piaf was an avid admirer of Neveu.  Again, the titles of the movements reveal their thematic and emotional content: Allegro con fuoco, Intermezzo: Très lent et calme, and Presto tragico; it ends with gestures that to my mind and ears represent the shots of the firing squad.  Unlike the flute sonata, this beautiful and powerful work is infrequently heard, but like the performance of the former, this one by violinist Andrew Eng and pianist Tae Kim was stunning.

The presence of these two musicians on the program was due to the third of the season’s focuses: the presentation to the area’s audiences of new faces. Violist Daniel Doña and cellist Agnes Kim joined them for the program’s concluding work, Mendelssohn’s Piano Quartet Op. 1  written in 1822 when he was 13.  While it is clearly not the work of a mature composer, it is also clearly not an immature, childish product worth playing only because of its composer’s subsequent achievements.  Its four movements are well constructed and sequenced and inter-connected, but also individually differentiated.  Only its conclusion seems unexpected, under-planned.  The Trio’s performance was clearly much better planned, thought-out, and rehearsed, marvelous and successful because it inspired the audience to applaud long and loudly and to rise to its feet when the musicians returned for the requested second bow.  Like Poulenc’s violin sonata, this work deserves to be heard more frequently, although perhaps for a different reason.

It made a fine close to the recital, just as the work that preceded it to open the second half, Mendelssohn’s Sonata in F Minor for flute, Op. 4, written in 1825 when he was 15, made a well-balanced opener for the second half, bringing Krueger and Hayes back to the stage.  This piece is not quite as carefully constructed as the Op. 1 quartet, but is no less pleasing.  Its central Poco adagio strikes me as especially Schubertian in the work that is clearly heavily influenced by both him and Beethoven, whose Op. 1 was, as Krueger pointed out in his interesting comments, a set of piano trios, perhaps the reason for Mendelssohn’s choice of the piano quartet for his equivalent offering for the published-music world.

Throughout the evening, I was again struck by the exquisiteness and expertise of the writing and both the individual instrumental playing and the ensemble balance in the slow movements. In fact, it was generally superior to and more pleasing, to my ears at least, than in the fast movements, in which bravura and speed often take precedence over nuanced expression.  Indeed, the greatest weakness in this generally superb whole was pianist Kim’s occasional overpowering of his string partner’s sound(s), especially when pizzicatti were involved, which were too frequently completely covered.  I attributed it, however, to his youth and inexperience in such ensemble playing and unfamiliarity with the instrument and the acoustic of this live hall because it never occurred in the slow movements, proving that Kim knows how to ‘dial it back,’ and he carried it over into the quartet’s third movement Scherzo: Presto, likewise proving that he can do it once he has found his ‘footing’ with the instrument and acoustic.  On the other hand, I must hasten to say that the expressive and sensitive performances of all the musicians were truly remarkable, not surprising for the very experienced Hayes and Krueger, but not inevitable among musicians in the early years of their careers. And the quality of the playing of violist Dona and cellist Kim suggests the Arneis Quartet, in which they play,  is clearly an ensemble whose development and future merit attention

Marvin J. Ward, a retired translator and teacher of French (Ph.D., UNC Chapel Hill), has been writing for Classical Voice of North Carolina for a decade and was founding Executive Editor of Classical Voice of New England through December, 2009. He is now a Five Colleges Associate based at Smith College.

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