in: Reviews

June 21, 2010

Fauré, Arensky and Brahms Honor Deveau Sr. at Rockport

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View of Shalin Lie Center from Sandy Bay (BMInt staff photo)

View of Shalin Liu Performance Center from Sandy Bay (BMInt staff photo)

On Father’s Day, June 20, we took in a program dedicated in memory of Rockport Music Artistic Director David Deveau’s father, Charles. It consisted of late-19th-century works of varying coloration performed by a variety of musicians with little formal connection to one another (except in two cases by marriage) other than that most of them were known to and admired by the late Deveau, Sr. Duo pianists Leslie Amper and Randall Hodgkinson performed Gabriel Fauré’s Dolly Suite for piano four hands; the Pittsburgh Symphony’s concertmaster, Andrés Cárdenes, and its principal cellist, Anne Martinson Williams, joined David Deveau on piano for Anton Arensky’s Piano Trio in D minor; and Cárdenes and Williams teamed with violinist Joana Genova and violists Katherine Murdock and Ariel Rudiakov in the Brahms String Quintet No. 2 in G major, op. 111.

Raoul Bardac, son of Sigismund and Emma Moyse Bardac, was the unwitting catalyst of his mother’s two major extramarital affairs: Raoul, having studied piano with his neighbor Gabriel Fauré, introduced him to his mother in the 1890s and successfully replicated the experiment with his subsequent teacher, Claude Debussy, in 1903. (After his parents’ understandable divorce in 1905, Emma married Debussy in 1908.) According to Roger Nichols’s biography of Debussy, Emma was a talented singer and sparkling conversationalist. At any rate, Fauré was captivated, and for Emma he composed his La bonne chanson, and in honor of Raoul’s younger sister Hélène (1892-1985), nicknamed Dolly, he wrote his only work for piano four hands, the Dolly Suite, between 1893 and 1896 (the first number, “Berceuse,” he adapted from an early work). The individual pieces of the suite, after the opening lullaby, are “Mi-a-ou,” referring not to a cat but to the way Dolly pronounced her brother’s name; “Dolly’s Garden”; “Kitty’s waltz” (referring to a dog, not a cat; don’t ask); “Tenderness”; and “Spanish Dance.” The writing is mostly straightforwardly lyrical, although “Dolly’s Garden” (which also has one of Fauré’s sweetest tunes) offers some surprising harmonic byways, the waltz has a delightfully off-kilter short-long rhythm, and the Spanish Dance, very clearly influenced by Emmanuel Chabrier’s España, also improves on it with subtler and more original harmonization. Amper and Hodgkinson obtained from Rockport Music’s spanking-new Steinway an impeccable clarity of line and phrase, with all inner voices clearly articulated. This is appealing but not deep music, so it pretty well plays itself expressively—or at least that’s how Amper and Hodgkinson made it appear, to their great credit.

A year or two ago, when WHRB was on its summer auto-pilot (we call its not-always-fully-synchronized, computer-driven jukebox the “Harv-O-Matic”), one of the items in repertory was the sole piano trio of Anton Arensky (1861-1906). The commentary repeated, perforce each time, Rimsky-Korsakov’s assessment that Arensky’s music would enter the dustbin of history, the enduring popularity of the Trio being in its way confirmation of that prophecy for the rest of Arensky’s œuvre. Rimsky’s asperity might be attributable to Arensky’s confirmed Westernism—he was a devotee of the Tchaikovskian rather than the nationalist tendency in Russian music. Now that other Westernist composers like Anton Rubinstein and Nikolai Medtner are undergoing a bit of revival, it might be time to go digging through that dustbin on behalf of poor Arensky.

Meanwhile, the Trio remains a popular and critical favorite: its opening movement, in impeccable sonata form, has a catchy main tune whose melodic shape is perhaps made more memorable by its anachronistic similarity to a certain Beatles song. The following scherzo is also a popular number, with a tricky violin part that must leap between spiccato and pizzicato, with some harmonics thrown in for good measure. The scherzo’s trio section features a dialogue between a galumphing piano and some Viennese schmalz in the strings—a wonderful effect, but from the players’ facial expressions, only Deveau seemed to be getting the joke. The Trio, as is often the case with pieces of its era, is given structural unity by overt and covert repetition of melodies between movements: here the slow movement’s main theme resembles the first movement’s opening one in outline, and the motto tune reappears in propria persona as a wistful memory in the finale.

Cárdenes, Deveau, and Williams offered no great musical revelations, but the performance was rock-solid and, with a few minor cavils, persuasive. From where we sat, in the right-hand balcony (we have urged RM management to seat us in various places around the hall so we can better sample the acoustic and other properties of their new space), in all but the last movement Mr. Cárdenes seemed under-powered in contrast to his colleagues. This seems not to be a localized acoustic phenomenon, as we had similar reports from listeners seated elsewhere. We know that the room’s acoustics promote the lower strings; the piano had always seemed neutral, but Deveau kept the lid fully up for the Trio, which may have contributed to overwhelming the violin. This imbalance of sound was quite apart from matters of clarity—Mr. Cárdenes’s sweet and pure sound could be distinctly heard. Thus, violinists, note well: if your name isn’t already Itzhak Perlman, better crank up the volume at the Shalin Liu.

There are those who regard the String Quintet No. 2 in G, op. 111 to be Brahms’s finest chamber work. Certainly, it was written at the height of his powers, in 1890, and is a marvel of compactness, alongside the radical compression of his op. 8 piano trio he engineered in 1889. In his comprehensive, if somewhat contentious, survey of all Brahms’s chamber music, Daniel Gregory Mason observed that a careful balance of volume and tempo in the opening movement was necessary to clarify the respective roles of the main opening theme in the cello and its subsidiary motif of a rising third, which later takes on great prominence. By Mason’s standards, the performance Sunday would have appeared too fast and too strongly emphasizing the rippling accompaniment. Williams, however, did her bit to sing out the main tune and although the passage introducing the rising third did get short shrift, it was partly compensated by the ensemble’s taking an exposition repeat. To us, this issue of balance highlights one of the perils of ad hoc ensembles’ taking on standard repertory works that have been so well explored by groups that have performed with each other for many years. That said, this was overall a very fine performance; Brahms allocates many of his key melodies here to the violas, and Murdock and Rudiakov were very much present and accounted for. Although from where we sat we could not see them at all, their lines were perfectly clear and resonant, as indeed were everyone else’s, not excluding Genova. The somewhat oddly constructed (no real second theme) slow movement, with its principal motif that sounds more like Grieg than Brahms, was taken at a pace that emphasized its lyricism, sometimes at the expense of depth, except in the radiant coda. The intermezzo (What, you want a scherzo from Brahms? Ha!) and finale were solidly if not epiphanically played, although the suddenly gypsified coda to the finale was duly given the full-court press, to immoderate audience approbation.

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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