The second concert of the Tanglewood Music Center’s Contemporary Music Festival occurred Friday, August 13, at 2.30 p.m. comprising several more mid-20th-century “classics.” Roger Sessions’ Five Pieces for Piano (1975) were written well after his three dense, almost bombastic piano sonatas (1927-1965), almost as a late and more gentle coda to them. Two of the five movements of Five Pieces… are in memory of the composer Luigi Dallipiccola (1904-1975), a close friend in the 1960s. From the moment the Tanglewood Fellow Alexander Bernstein sounded the first note, we knew we were in for a treat: he was eloquently playing this as deeply felt music, not conquering some mountainous terrain. Always in control of the long phrase, by his perfectly applied touches he connected distant pitches as the composer surely intended. It was this piece that rang in our ears as we left Ozawa Hall at the end of the concert.
Milton Babbitt’s Du (1951), a brief (six-minute) cycle of seven songs set to a text by the German expressionist poet August Stramm, is a masterful model of the close interrelation between text and music. Soprano Deanna Breiwick had just the right lyric fach for the piece, but her German was frankly unintelligible and often mispronounced. Pianist Brett Hodgdon served as an excellent collaborator, comfortable in the medium.
The most recent work (2002) was Fifty Fifty for two pianos by Charles Wuorinen, expertly performed by William McNally and Alexander Bernstein (again!). In this case we should not forget to laud the anonymous piano tuner(s?) for matching the pianos’ tunings so resonantly. The title signifies the celebratory occasion for which it was written: the 50th birthday of this Festival’s co-curator Oliver Knussen. In Wuorinen’s own words, “It’s a three-to-four minute patch of counterpoint that begins without preamble and ends with a smash.” Indeed it does: with two fore-arm smashes applied to the piano’s mid range.
The real centerpiece of the program was Hans Werner Henze’s Being Beauteous, for soprano, harp, and four cellos, of 1963, conducted with quiet embracing competence by Cristian Macelaru. Coloratura soprano Emily Duncan-Brown’s voice was intense, but elegantly varied when appropriate, and her presentation bore other imaginative dramatic markings. Once again, however, she lacked the consonants so necessary to project the meaning of this work. Rimbaud’s prose-poem, a hazy personification of Beauty and the ominous specters around her must have suggested these particular instruments to the composer. Cellos are perhaps the most capable instrument of all for variety of color, density, and texture, all of which were used here, singly and in concert, while the harp provided the voluptuous direct support for the voice while suggesting some of the poetic impressionism.
Finally, Lukas Foss’s four Echoi (1963) for four soloists was the real “relic” from the past (if you had lived through it), and as such was fascinating to hear in the current context of technically extraordinarily capable players: Ryan Uré, clarinet: Michael Roberts, a huge battery of percussion; Kathryn Bates Williams, cello; and Nolan Pearson, piano, performing without conductor. Although generated by tone rows from which he selected only a few, the work is also representative of the period during which he developed his Improvisational Chamber Ensemble and a “controlled free-form” manner of composition, in which players are sometimes invited to move at will back and forth between pages of the score. At the same time it seemed, and still seems to be a case of Foss exploring new instrumental sounds and combinations within nevertheless a sonorous context. The third Echoi, “on a childhood tune,” plays with the taunting minor third in various sections for pairs of instruments: for vibraphone and piano, then adding strings; clarinet and strings; cellos tapping their strings on the soundboard, etc. None of the Echoi really seems to go anywhere, but rather revels in the sounds it is making, as ultimately so do we.