With the summer’s heat spell broken, and in a thunderstorm’s wake, a preternatural double rainbow distracted my senses as friends and I drove up on Saturday evening, September 4, to the Darrow School where the Mount Lebanon Shaker Village’s Tannery Pond Concert awaited. No music, I wondered, could possibly match the spell cast by this sight. I even recited Wordsworth’s “My heart leaps up when I behold/A rainbow in the sky” to my friends from England in the back seat of my car. Such natural wonders – the conjuring of nature – in preparation for man-made art, would only make the beauty of the music that evening even more memorable. Three outstanding musicians were to perform the Brahms Horn Trio, one of the towering works in the Romantic chamber canon. It’s a piece I’ve known all my life, and I have never ceased loving or marveling at it. In college, I attempted the piano part in the Scherzo, with two far-better-than-me musicians. At Tannery Pond, luckily, the Brahms was scheduled as the final pièce de résistance, lest after a rainbow and such musical gold, little else on the program might be of interest.
The programming at Tannery Pond always surprises, straying as it does from four-square convention. Violinist Jennifer Frautschi, horn player Eric Ruske, and pianist Pedja Muzijevic each has an impressive international resume, and they chose a fascinating mix of Beethoven, Schoenberg, Liszt, Czerny, and Cage to prepare us for the great Brahms Trio. Beethoven’s “Spring” sonata (Sonata in F major, Op. 24 for violin and piano), which opened the evening, was an unusually taut interpretation and rejected any expected indulgence in mannered charm. This tension arose in part from the disparate ways the violinist and pianist read the score: Muzijevic’s sharp attacks, muscular tone, and punchy phrasing were in contrast to Frautschi’s fluid and vibrant style. The tempos were brisk, adding to the gripping appeal of this performance. Any perceptible break between structural elements in any given movement was minimized. Such forward direction lent a mood of restlessness that was at odds with putative bucolic interpretations; however, there were delights poised in repose amongst the flow: the beautiful coda in the first movement and the delicious final Rondo.
The experiment of the evening can best be described as a cento, a sandwich of sorts of Schoenberg and late Liszt. From the Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19 (“Langsam), two slow movements (the second and the sixth) were performed with a rarely heard Liszt nocturne, Schaflos! Frage und Antwort (“Sleepless! Question and Answer”) as the centerpiece. The elegiac Schoenberg movements, written at the cusp of his turn from tonality to atonality, were oddly quiescent frames to the fascinating Liszt work. The nocturne starts in E-minor and presents a simple motif of fourths and seconds, but spins in its rage of insomnolence into a paroxysm of bitonality. Only in the “Answer,” marked andante quieto, does some rest return with a reappearance of the primary motif. The Liszt sounded more “modern” than the Schoenberg. Pedja Muzijevic’s sense of dramatic contrast was acute here, spiriting us from the hypnotic Schoenberg to the febrile Liszt and back again.
This meditative mood was broken by Carl Czerny’s “Fantasie” from Drey brillante Fantasien über die beliebtesten Motive aus Franz Schubert’s Werken, Op. 339, No. 1, a virtuosic medley of Schubert song themes performed on horn with piano accompaniment. In Czerny’s hands, the horn plays the vocal part in the potpourri of these song themes. He originally set three such Fantasien for piano and “physharmonica,” an odd harmonium-like instrument that offered degrees of dynamics worked by bellows pedals. The piano part is glitteringly virtuosic and gave us an idea of how prodigious Muzijevic’s passagework can be.
The version for piano and horn that we heard left us wondering about the virtues of the physharmonica. The horn is unflatteringly exposed when the performer is required to play unidiomatic and unvocal leaps. Ruske had battled with some shaky intonation, undoubtedly due to the sudden chill and cooling of the hall with a consequent buildup of condensation in his instrument. The cadenza seemed especially labored. But Czerny’s unforgiving and sometimes awkward vocal transcription didn’t help matters. However, Ruske’s demonstrated athleticism in his playing, while not mellifluous or fluffy, made each phrase something rather unique in shape and sound. Ultimately, the horn transcriptions disappointed, compared to recollections of what the human voice imparts; unlike Bach’s vocal music, which is arguably pan-idiomatic, Schubert’s lieder are primal vocal music. Given his own instrumental transcriptions (like Death and the Maiden, The Trout, etc.), one might think that any melodic instrument can make justifiable musical sense. However, Czerny’s entertaining but unsatisfactory pastiche, for me, proved otherwise.
John Cage’s In a Landscape, while highly uncharacteristic of Cage’s better known aleatoric or “prepared piano” compositions, is set either for piano or harp and is probably his most beautiful and appealing work. In a Janus-like way, the piece evokes the sound worlds of Claude Debussy and Charles Koechlin, while anticipating the stasis of the minimalists. Cells of stepwise and iterative intervals are hauntingly combined and repeated; careful use of the sustaining and una corda pedals is indicated. At the end, the performer is asked, after a diminuendo to ppppp, to hold five keys down, allowing the reverberant sustained notes to create harmonics on the open strings. Regrettably, we were deprived of hearing this ethereal effect when an over enthused audience member began thunderously applauding at the penultimate measure – sort of premature evaporation. Muzijevic’s playing, though, even with the loss of the last measure’s effect, brought out all that was diaphanous and disembodied in this dreamy work.
Brahms’s most autumnal work (second only to his Clarinet Quintet), his baroquely shaped Horn Trio in E-flat major, Op. 40, for horn, violin, and piano, was, indeed, burnished gold at the end of musical reflection and refraction. Ruske seemed to use embouchure for a “natural horn”; indeed, Brahms intended the work for such an instrument. His desired effect was to give us the outdoorsy sound and colorful chromatics that abound here. The peaceful and lyric Andante was warm without being mired in sentiment. The incredible Scherzo, in which, like magic, the opening staccato theme appears lyrically transformed in the B section, was the treat of the evening. I’d rather have three encores of this Scherzo than a Czerny Fantasie. Perhaps the greatest moment was in the third movement: Frautschi’s and Muzijevic’s lyric intensity was matched by Ruske’s dramatic interjections. The Rondo, a quintessential pièce de chasse, abounds in Brahmsian hemiola and wild spirits. It embraced the outdoors like the bounding brace of a memorable rainbow.