in: Reviews

February 1, 2010

NESE Mixes to Match Mozart, Beethoven, Berio and Piazzolla


While music reviews usually wax long on the music and the performances, with occasional forays into musicology, the concert on January 30 of New England String Ensemble at Jordan Hall reminds one of another aspect of the musical arts, namely the art of programming itself. Music Director Federico Cortese chose and arrayed a group of pieces that, while not explicitly so declaring, revealed composers meditating on the Baroque, from vantage points near and far, and with attitudes varying from affection to irony to something bordering combativeness. Two confrontations with that avatar of Baroque sensibility, the fugue, bookended the program: Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K. 546, and Beethoven’s staggering Grosse Fuge, op. 135. In between were two 1960s concertato works of widely divergent styles, Astor Piazzolla’s Cuatro estaciones porteños (Four Seasons of Buenos Aires), and Luciano Berio’s Chemins IVb (su Sequenza VII), featuring soloists Irina Muresanu, violin, and Dennis Shafer, soprano saxophone, respectively.

Another way of looking at the program is as a collection of works based on other works by the same composer. The Mozart represents a slow introduction for a fugue he had written five years earlier as a two-piano piece. The introduction, to return to the Baroque theme, features a solemn dotted-rhythm figure in the manner of a French overture. The fugue employs a chromaticism Mozart seldom used, possibly in homage to the subject of Bach’s Musical Offering (actually, of course, Frederick II’s tune). It receives a similarly recherché development with inversions, augmentations and diminutions, etc., conveying Mozart’s sober, highly wrought side. Cortese went for rich, full sonorities, with finely crafted phrasing and balance. The fugue, taken briskly, found the cellos sometimes a bit muddy-sounding in their rapid passages (this could simply be an artifact of your correspondent’s far off-center seat).

We have written before about the Piazzolla, when the NEC Chamber Orchestra performed it in November. It is, in fact, a double synthesis, first by the composer, who brought together four disparate pieces to form a concerto-suite of sorts for his own mixed ensemble, and then by Leonid Desyatnikov, who arranged it for solo with strings at the behest of Gidon Kremer. The work as assembled, both by its title and its substance, winks at the Baroque concerto, specifically at Vivaldi, whose Four Seasons is quoted several times, most spectacularly at the very end (also quoted is Pachelbel’s Canon in D) The music itself is classic Piazzolla, a miraculous abstraction of Argentine dance rhythms, melodic and harmonic tropes. One must give Desyatnikov a large part of the credit for the overall impact of the piece: he has superposed on Piazzolla’s notes a rich palette of advanced string effects, from harmonic glissandi to sul tasto squeaks, to all manner of pitch bending, all in service to the variously  vigorous, melancholy and sentimental moods of these pieces. Interestingly, Ms. Muresanu’s performance emphasized the music’s universality rather than its Argentine particularism, and did not essay any flashy body language theatrics. She turned in a polished, bravura and musically glam performance. Special mention is also due to Joshua Gordon, whose several cello solos and duets with the violin were soulful and affecting.

Luciano Berio’s Chemins IVb also represents a work at several removes from its origins in Sequenza VII for solo oboe. He took that work, repeated the solo line verbatim, and added a string commentary on it, then provided an alternate version of the solo part for saxophone. The original idea of the original piece was to focus on the note B, which the oboe can finger many ways to different timbral effect and which recurs prominently throughout as a touchstone, and from that note builds up passages relating back to it almost like a jazz improvisation. To this fixed center, the strings in the Chemins version react in some ways like a Baroque ripieno, and in some ways like an electronic feedback loop. The transition from oboe to saxophone is interesting in itself: the sax, an instrument usually in B-flat (there is a soprano sax in C, but we don’t know which Mr. Shafer used), creates a B natural quite differently from the oboe, but that written C-sharp can also be rendered in a variety of ways, thus preserving the intent if not the precise output of the original. The ensemble, reduced in number, arrayed behind the soloist in a semicircle, quite à la mode Baroque style. Mr. Shafer is a young man of prodigious talent and very contemporary wardrobe sensibility. He attacked his part with great gusto, perfectly executing the multiphonics and other technical fireworks while spinning a pure line that forever fell back on that B. One had to focus intently on the strings, at least from where we sat, whose primarily subdued murmuring could at times seem overwhelmed by the soloist.

You will be relieved that your correspondent will not attempt to compound or summarize the voluminous literature on Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, intended as the finale to his string quartet op. 130, but replaced by a finale more proportionate to that work and spun off to the public as op. 135. As a standalone, it is a standout even in Beethoven’s towering oeuvre, a compendium of all the contrapuntal tricks Beethoven knew, and a Herculean attempt to wed the fugal form to a late-Classical or early-Romantic sense of developmental structure. In its string quartet form the fugue etches its lines deeply with sharp edges, its angular melody and dotted countersubject climbing the heights by their fingernails and raising the listener’s neck hairs. The typical weakness of a string orchestra performance is that these edges dull in the wash of sound. Mr. Cortese did his level best at this performance to keep the sharpness and grit intact, and succeeded to an admirable degree. At the same time, his fine balance of forces allowed the principal advantage of the orchestral presentation to be felt, which is the architectural and emotional affinities between this work and Beethoven’s great late works for large ensembles, the Ninth Symphony and the Missa Solemnis.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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