in: Reviews

August 20, 2010

Portland’s Competition Winner Between Familiar, Neglected Quintets

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The third and penultimate concert of this year’s Portland Chamber Music Festival on August 19 featured one familiar and two unfamiliar works — of the latter, one because it is new and the other because it is neglected. The opening and closing works were quintets, the Mozart Clarinet Quintet in A, K. 581, and the Dohnányi Piano Quintet in C minor, op. 1. In between was Six Bagatelles for String Trio, a 2004 work by Boston-based composer Andrew List, which won this year’s PCMF Composer Competition.

The Mozart quintet is one of the two pillars of the clarinet’s chamber repertory, together with the Brahms quintet, and as such needs little introduction to listeners or readers. Both quintets were inspired by the skills of particular performers, in Mozart’s case, Anton Stadler. His playing overcame Mozart’s initial reluctance to incorporate the clarinet with strings in a chamber work, but compositionally Mozart was still cautious, seeking to prevent his quintet from becoming a mini-concerto of the type well illustrated by his cousin-in-law Weber’s later essay in the genre. At the same time, Mozart didn’t want to bury the clarinet (as if he could), so he compromised by combining some flashy passages with others in which the clarinet supported, typically with single-note punctuation or broken-chordal accompaniment, melodic lines carried by the other instruments. However calculated, the result — abetted, of course, by some of Mozart’s finest melodic, harmonic and structural invention— was one of his greatest chamber works.

The ensemble assembled to deliver all this to the PCMF audience comprised clarinetist Todd Palmer, violinists PCMF Co-Artistic Director Jennifer Elowitch and Jesse Mills, violist Jessica Thompson, and cellist Ronald Feldman. They produced rich, sweet sounds, caressing all the notes, and, especially in the slow movement, achieving admirable sonic blending. Palmer, a regular performer with PCMF, displayed admirable technique and tonal control (despite a spot of bother with a sticky key), elegant phrasing and emotional engagement. The strings likewise were in top form and definitely with the program. We found especially winsome Thompson’s expressions of delight at moments of special musical felicity; this being Mozart, there were many, notably in the minuet. Interpretively, this group favored highlighting contrasts in tempo and articulation: an enhanced rallentando before the final statement of the theme in the minuet, and a seriously staccato presentation of the theme of the variations finale.

Our only reservation had to do with a certain reticence in the strings: whether because of a sense that this is how 18th-century music goes, or a desire to promote maximal contrast with the Ernö Dohnányi that closed the concert, or acoustic issues with the room, Elowitch seemed to encourage the strings to dampen the decibels, which sometimes left Palmer in a more prominent role than the ensemble might have wished. Seated in the second row center, we were not unduly prejudiced by this, but we wondered how this might have come over at the back of the room.

The first half closed with List’s Six Bagatelles for String Trio, performed by Mills and Feldman with Marka Gustavsson on viola. The composer, who teaches at Berklee College of Music in Boston, introduced the work from the stage and stressed his desire to create six little pieces with maximum contrast ranging from “in your face” to “other-worldly.” In this he has largely succeeded: the first bagatelle (he has taken his concept and title from Beethoven and Webern, with a musical style that effectively splits the considerable difference between them) is an introduction, very brief, pitting forceful rhythmic motifs in two instruments in tritone intervals against a more lyrical, though expressionistically intense, idea in the other. In this, there seemed to us to be unacknowledged elements of Bartók. The second piece, “Canon,” did not sound like an absolutely strict one, but it achieved the effect of sober austerity one often associates with exercises in that form, before a surprisingly and perhaps playfully abrupt petering out. The third, “Soliloquy,” highlights the viola in a keening, mournful melody accompanied by sustained notes, largely in harmonics. The only breach in the regimen of contrast came with the fourth and fifth pieces, “Interlude” and “Arioso,” which seemed rather similar in affect, with some virtuoso slippery harmonics especially well brought off by Feldman. The finale saw the return of material from the first number, bringing the entire work to a rounded conclusion, and earning the performers and composer well-deserved applause.

In one of those wonderful and bemusing coincidences of life, your correspondent, on the long drive from Washington, DC to Boston two days before the concert, tuned in a radio station out of Philadelphia and caught a recorded live performance of the Piano Quintet in C minor, op. 1 of Ernö Dohnányi. (That’s the Hungarian spelling of the Austrianized Ernst von Dohnányi, the version carried by his grandson, conductor Christoph). It is a work championed by Brahms and once played often by the Kneisel Quartet. (We are indebted to  Mills’s introductory remarks for the latter fact and to Will Hertz’s excellent program notes for the former.) Since it is so seldom programmed, we were unfamiliar with it up to that point. Now, having heard it twice in one week, we can commend it to the attention of anyone who likes late 19th- and early-20th-century chamber music. Unlike his younger colleagues Bartok and Kodály, Dohnányi was content to work within the parameters of the Germanic conventions all his long life (1877-1960). This quintet, written at only age 17 in 1895, need excite no comment in that respect, with its Hungarianism — and there is some — expressed subtly. (However, the Bartok piano quintet, about which we have commented here, is of similar cast to the Dohnányi, despite a bit more chromaticism.)

Brahms’s enthusiasm for this work was quite understandable. The first movement unfolds in high late-Romantic style (a bit more chromatic in some of its turns of phrase and harmonic shifts than we would expect from Brahms himself), with an opening theme that plunges and soars, and a lyrical contrasting theme of quintessential Viennese character. The development is vigorous and well plotted, the recapitulation slightly disguised, and the coda rousing. There follows a scherzo with an opening tune like a conversation first heard in the middle; there is considerable contrapuntal interplay in the outer sections, and the trio oozes Hapsburg Gemütlichkeit. The slow movement begins with a soulful melody in the viola (Gustavsson playing with great empathy) that is, to our ears, not quite as memorable a tune as some of the others in this work. The song rises and swells in a full and rich ensemble sound — perfect music for a rainy Sunday afternoon, we fancy. The finale is another complete catalogue of correct late Romantic compositional craft. Its principal theme is vigorously motivic, enhanced by its 5/4 meter, and the lyric subordinate theme is waltz-like.

One young man in the audience, after the concert, exclaimed with (possibly self-) exasperation, “It’s got every cliché of late-19th-century writing, and I loved every minute of it.” It’s all true: there’s the obligatory (double) fugue on the principal themes, the invocation of chorales, the flattening of the rhythm to introduce the coda, the return of material from the first movement. And yet it is all quite gratifying and leaves one feeling great. It is all perfectly constructed, and the success of this methodology leads one to conclude that this era represented the high-water mark of compositional craft: a less-than-genius but skillful composer could learn to write this way, they taught it in the schools, and the outcome, given the slightest amount of inspiration and personal style, is generally more satisfying than that of similarly situated composers of the 18th century whose work fills what’s left of the classical-music airwaves. At least, that’s our story, and we’re sticking with it.

We have nothing but commendation for the performance of the Dohnányi quintet: pianist and PCMF Co-Artistic Director Dena Levine, violinists Mills and Elowitch (swapping first and second chairs from the Mozart), violist Gustavsson, and cellist Natasha Brofsky. Despite the handicap of a rather muddy old Steinway 9 footer in the Abromson Center, they gave it a full-bodied and idiomatic reading and had obvious fun in doing so.

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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