in: Reviews

July 15, 2010

Monadnock’s Haydn, Wagner, Brahms Not Entirely What You’d Expect

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The lovingly preserved and maintained 1775 Jaffrey Center Meetinghouse is an idyllic New Hampshire locale for a summer concert, and it provided the setting for Monadnock Music’s July 11 presentation of three quintets for string quartet plus three different somethings else. Each item, in its way, was a little bit odd. One was Johann Peter Salomon’s reduction for flute quintet of Haydn’s Symphony No. 100 in G, the “Military” symphony; another was a harp quintet by Wagner — Melinda Wagner, to be precise; and the third was the Brahms op. 34 Piano Quintet in F minor, which is not at all odd, but its position as the capstone of a summer program might cause a fastidious eyebrow to rise. The program’s title, “Chamber Masterpieces I” (stay tuned for II and III) was also a little bit odd, since of the three works played, only the Brahms is an acknowledged chamber music masterpiece, and the Haydn, while an acknowledged masterpiece, was not intended as chamber music. As to Ms. Wagner’s work, while she is an acknowledged master, and her piece may yet prove to be a chamber masterpiece, we think it should undergo a test of time before claiming it as such.

The program called forth a formidable array of musicians — 13 in all, including Monadnock co-Artistic Directors Laura Gilbert, who played flute in the Haydn, and Jonathan Bagg, who was violist for the Brahms. And this does not include Ms. Wagner, who was present and gave a brief introduction to her piece. The players are mostly drawn from the New York and Boston freelance pools, and are all of the high quality you would expect from America’s two top classical music cities.

The opening work, which we should properly call Haydn/Salomon, took a full symphony orchestra and boiled it down to a string quartet with flute obbligato. One might imagine that the flute would stand in for the whole wind section, but although this symphony was scored for a rather full complement of winds and brass — flute, oboes, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, with clarinets added for the slow movement, to say nothing of a percussion section of tympani augmented by triangle and bass drum — the wind parts mostly double strings, except for the one flute. Thus, among other fascinating anomalies, this arrangement gives the military flourishes at the end of the slow movement that earned the work its sobriquet to the stings alone. The work itself, being one of Haydn’s most popular, needs little discussion other than to note that it may apotheosize Haydn’s quirkiest gestures: dramatic pauses, sudden leaps to remote keys, and other surprises, which while they may have been influenced by similar passages in C.P.E. Bach, nevertheless surpass him in their ingenious integration into the architecture of the whole work. The performance here, by Ms. Gilbert, Jesse Mills and Adela Peña, violins, Mary Hammann, viola, and Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello, was delightful, graceful, forceful, and elegant as the situations required. One would not want to give up hearing this in its orchestral form, but we suspect Haydn was reasonably pleased with Salomon’s efforts, and so were we.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Melinda Wagner introduced her Pan Journal for harp and string quartet, a 2009 commission from the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, by linking it to the quiddities of Haydn’s symphony. She said that unlike most of her works, this one turned out less linear in reasoning and more capricious. She also described it as a light work, although she cautioned that she strove — as well she should — to go beyond the standard angelic sounds one is accustomed to hearing from the harp. One should apply a touch of circumspection in accepting statements like that from composers and other creative folk; they are often not the most acute analysts of their own work. In this case, the last observation was the most consistent with what we heard, although the writing for harp was far from extended technique, and would not, we suspect, have stirred the envy of a Carlos Salzedo, a true pioneer in writing for what was his own instrument. We confess to not being steeped in Ms. Wagner’s music, so her first remark may well be completely accurate; nevertheless, the single movement work struck us as having a fairly straightforward structure and rounded manner of working out. To be sure, It progresses in episodes and varies tempo, meter and texture, but the ideas are recognizably tossed about and return in what could, for aught it sounds, be something like sonata form. This, in case you were wondering, is not a negative comment. It was a perfectly solid, if not magisterial, work, by a top professional who knows how to keep the ears and brains of her listeners engaged. We would not call it a particularly light piece, either, although it’s hard to know any more what a composer means by the expression; hardly anybody these days, after all, tries to be as earnest as Schumann or Brahms or Schoenberg. We found no fault with the performance by Stacey Shames, harp, Joel Pitchon and Liza Zurlinden, violins, Tawnya Popoff, viola, and Greg Hesselink, cello, and Ms. Wagner appeared effusive in her gestures of approbation for them.

The Brahms Piano Quintet strikes us as a rather weighty meal, a good poser for a chill and drizzly November Sunday afternoon, rather than a sultry summer one. Still, one should not entirely forego the meat and potatoes for salad and vichyssoise when taking in the country air. The mild oddity of programming this work in this context was carried a bit further, however, than absolutely necessary in execution. Individually all the performers — Rieko Aizawa, piano, Mills and Peña, violins, Bagg, viola and Marie-Volcy Pelletier, cello — gave assured and committed performances (Ms. Pelletier sounded as if she were using her “B” instrument, though, which may be a prudent choice given the vagaries of non-climate-controlled venues, but which, as here, can demand unforeseeably hard work to avoid ugliness of tone). What failed here, almost utterly in the first movement, less so in the last two, was a unified ensemble.

<p>Brahms Piano Quintet at Jaffrey Center Meetinghouse (Christopher Lawton photo)</p>

Brahms Piano Quintet at Jaffrey Center Meetinghouse (Christopher Lawton photo)

Ms. Aizawa gave a forceful yet refined reading; Mills and Bagg, however, were taking no prisoners and for all purposes overwhelmed Peña (who was even largely hidden from view by Mills’s far-forward seating) and Pelletier (who, mercifully, had enough solo passages to let us know she was there). Aizawa, at least, had a formidable sound-making device at her disposal, though her elegance in the first two movements was undermined by the muscularity of the male performers. We think the performance would have greatly benefited from more attention to sonic balance and interpretive uniformity. The ensemble did, we must report, get things reasonably well together in the satanic scherzo — which in any case has a good deal of unison and octave writing — and the finale, whose sanguinary death-or-glory conclusion brought the audience to its feet.

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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