in: Reviews

February 22, 2010

Triple Helix Adumbrates Modernity at Wellesley

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The animating spirit of the February 20 concert by the renowned piano trio Triple Helix (Lois Shapiro, piano; Rhonda Rider, cello; and on this occasion Gabriela Diaz standing in for regular violinist Bayla Keyes) at their home venue of Wellesley College, was to explore how artistic currents that grew into the modernist tendencies of 20th century music rippled through the work of composers whose esthetics were mostly shaped by earlier styles. All but one of the works performed, the Debussy cello and violin sonatas, the Janácek violin sonata and Fairy Tale for cello and piano, and the Fauré and Rebecca Clarke trios, were written during or just after World War I, and most of them directly or indirectly reflect their composers’ experiences of the Great War. The Debussy and Fauré works, written near the ends of their creators’ lives, carry additional personal freight.

The Debussy cello sonata of 1915 was the first of the final chamber works—three competed out of a projected six—that, like the late Beethoven quartets, both distill the composer’s compositional techniques and simultaneously point in a new direction. The compactness of these works, the austerity of means, the invocation of antique forms, all betoken neoclassicism avant la lettre, while Stravinsky was still writing lush ballets. Ms. Shapiro’s exegetic program notes describe the cello sonata as having a kind of Pierrot Lunaire scenario, with a touch of Don Quixote’s mad chivalric quest (the opening modal flourishes do put one in mind of archaic Spanish courtliness—there’s indeed rather more Hispanic reference in both the cello and violin sonatas than the program notes flag). Ms. Rider’s tone in the opening movement, which is short, tight and intense, was mellow and ruminative. The middle movement, labeled a serenade, is more manic than the first, its mad pizzicati rendered with perfect fury. The finale is more conventionally tuneful than its motivically and intervallically fixated predecessors, with an aching melancholy uniting Debussy’s cultural, historical and personal agonies. Rider was completely inside this music; Ms. Shapiro, while ever fully present, gently yielded the floor to the cello’s passionate discourse.

The violin sonata, Debussy’s last completed work, begins as a longing reverie and interweaves it with a dying man’s rage. Ms. Diaz is a marvelous musician, with a commanding technique and transcendent empathy. She emoted among and between the pitches (literally so in the measured glissandi of the first movement), and brought great pathos to the tetchy plaintiveness of the second’s opening theme, contrasted with the central section’s ethereal loveliness. The finale has a more typical Debussy sound to it—the sonata as a whole is more fleshed out than the rather epigrammatic cello work—put packed into forms that suggest without closely imitating 18th century models, culminating in a burst of triumph, as Debussy surmounted the Germans, the end of European civilization, and his own mortality. Kudos to Mesd. Diaz and Shapiro for a stellar and affecting rendition.

In many respects the outlier on the program was the Fauré Trio in d minor, op. 120, that ended the first half of the concert. Dating from 1923 it was the last composed of the program’s works, by the oldest of its composers (he was 78 at the time). Ms. Shapiro’s notes gamely make the case for Fauré’s embrace of tonal ambiguity as an assimilation of modernism, as if the entire Romantic period were not fixated on it. Granted, particularly in contrast to his even older colleague and teacher Saint-Saëns, whose late chamber music intensifies in compactness and clarity, Fauré’s trio moves from clarity to ambiguity to perhaps something like self-mockery (the finale’s main theme is based on Ridi Pagliaccio from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, perhaps suggesting that Fauré regarded himself as some kind of poseur). Despite Triple Helix’s best efforts, where were indeed considerable and which contributed an aura of passionate uncertainty, and even propulsion—particularly in the piano part of the finale—this work is rather wan, like so much of Fauré too much the mulberry: full of sweetness but without the acid that makes for depth of flavor.

Our appreciation of the Fauré was not enhanced by the cavernous, sound-swallowing vastness that is Houghton Chapel. We sat in the balcony for the first half, and we admonish readers not to do that, at least for a chamber music concert, if you can avoid it. The situation was better on the floor, to which we repaired for the second half, but this remains a problematic venue for the most intimate of the musical arts. Wellesley seems not to have an adequate room for concerts as popular as these, alas, so our advice is just to stay downstairs and as close up as possible.

The second half of this uncommonly full program was given over to two very different attitudes from the gallic—Leos Janácek and Rebecca Clarke. The former’s violin sonata, mostly written during the war but not completed until 1921, is an in-your-face, unabashedly nationalistic and emotional score. The opening movement is fiery and mercurial; its main theme is rather parlando, reflecting the composer’s style of operatic prosody. Ms. Diaz put her arm into it; any moments of tenderness were quickly overcome. The two inner movements are more melodious and clearly folk-inspired; brusque outer sections contrast with softer centers. The finale, a curiosity, is an adagio in sonata form in which a gentle, almost parlor-music attitude in the piano is subjected to irritable irruptions in the violin. Although there is a chorale-like passage, said by Ms. Shapiro to reflect the liberation of Hungary (why Hungary?) by the Tsarist Russian troops, the violin is seldom really placated, and never for long. Again, high praise to Mesd. Diaz and Shapiro—they got their and the audience’s blood pumping with their committed and bravura performance.

Janácek’s Fairy Tale—really a three-movement tone poem—for cello and piano, is an earlier work (1910) and keys off an epic Russian poem (Janácek seems to have had Russophilic tendencies, quite ironic in light of the post-World War II relations between Prague and Moscow), “The Story of Tsar Berendey,” by Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky. We won’t belabor you with the details, but the story involves the love of the Tsarevich for the daughter of the Ruler of the Underworld, to whom the Tsar had improvidently pledged to deliver the son. There is a a principal idea presented in the first two movements as a ferocious pizzicato, which Ms. Rider communicated dramatically (in later days a composer might have used a Bartók pizz). There is much brilliant dynamic between cello and piano in both of these movements, and in the romantic second some surprisingly Schumannesque piano figuration. Ms. Rider caressed the strings here and Ms. Shapiro was a perfect mate. The finale is more heroic in tone as the conflict resolves to its ultimate gentle and happy ending. This is not one of Janácek’s great masterpieces, and its relation to modernism is a bit obscure—this is definitely not the Janácek of the Sinfonietta—but the performers put it across with dramatic flair.

The surprise of the evening was the finale, the piano trio of 1921 by the famously under-appreciated Rebecca Clarke, a British viola virtuoso and composer (the first female student of C. V. Stanford) who settled permanently in the US in the 1940s. Her known compositional output is small (her estate occasionally releases new tidbits), almost all of it dating before 1930 (she died in 1979, aged 93) but well-regarded. It is plain, even though her Trio is contemporary with the Janácek sonata and actually predates the Fauré trio, that she is the youngest of the composers in this program. From the get-go this work evinces a strident restlessness; subdued military flourishes in the piano in the first movement (they recur in the finale) bespeak the disillusion of the “bright young things” who survived the war and made modern society modern. Nevertheless, although her later music moved toward neoclassicism and even to the verge of atonality, this piece is impassioned and reflective in the sense of Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony (his own war memorial and also from 1921), some of the tone of which is reflected in the trio’s slow movement, rather than the brittle retreat from overt expressivity found in Stravinsky’s work of the period. The slow movement offers mournful modal passages featuring open and parallel fourths and fifths, rising in passion but subdued in volume and color. The finale provides the clearest indication of modernist irony, with off-kilter folk harmonies followed by heartrending outbursts. The military motif of the first movement precedes a keening litany for the dead, with which the work comes to a gentle close. The Triple Helix gave their all to this piece, which well deserved it, and which left a powerful impression.

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.

1 Comment

  1. Allow me to correct an error, brought on by a brain malfunction and some incomplete notes. The Clarke does not exactly come to a gentle close. At the very end it rouses briefly and closes fast and loud. Frankly, in my view that’s a bit of an esthetic weakness, rather like the close of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture; but be that as it may, I should have gotten my reporting straighter.

    Comment by Vance R. Koven — February 23, 2010 at 5:44 pm

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