On Saturday, June 25, the Rockport Chamber Music Festival put on an excellent concert at the Shalin Liu Performance Center. Somewhat misleadingly promoted as “David Leisner and Friends,” the concert actually provided a democratic vehicle by which each of the five musician’s individual talents could be displayed. Indeed, although he performed exquisitely when he was onstage, for almost half of the concert Leisner was listening in the wings.
The concert opened with Czech composer Bohuslav Martinù’s Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola performed by Arnaud Sussman (violin) and Yinzi Kong (viola). Traditionally, a madrigal was a vocal composition setting a poetic text written for several voices, a genre that was experimental and intimate, performed by cultivated amateurs and popular in Renaissance Italy. Martinù’s composition privileged the intimate aspect, emphasizing a warm dialogue between the two parts. Sussman and Kong gave an outstanding interpretation. There was a dialectic here between Sussman’s playfulness and Kong’s gravitas, a dialectic whose synthesis resulted in perhaps the best performance of the evening. Sussman and Kong took advantage of the composition’s many transitions between homophonic and polyphonic textures, permitting the audience first to hear each artist’s idiosyncratic take on a phrase and then to hear them together, nearly always resulting in a line made more beautiful by the sum of the parts. This is the sine qua non of chamber music excellence.
Leisner was joined by Sussman and Julie Albers (Cello) for his own composition, Trittico for violin, cello and guitar (1985). My favorite part of the piece lay in the transition from the busy, even hectic first movement to the lyrical middle movement with its cantabile melodies and distinctive guitar accompaniment. Towards the end of the middle movement, the cello was given a cadenza-like line which Albers played with clarity, intensity and elegance.
The bright and optimistic third movement of Leisner’s piece provided a surprisingly appropriate transition to the next piece, Joseph Haydn’s Quartet Opus 2, No. 2. In the eighteenth century, an unknown lutenist arranged Opus 2, No. 2 for Lute, violin, viola and cello, and transposed it down a full step from E major to D major. The (fantastic!) program notes for the concert indicate that it “is not known whether Haydn ever heard or approved of the arrangement.” In 1974 the score was re-adapted into a version appropriate for guitar, the version used in this concert. The original quartet was written around 1765, shortly after Haydn had won his position at the Esterházy Court, and some two decades before he would meet Mozart. As such, I have always thought of his Opus One and Two quartets as uncomfortably residing in a transitional space between two eras. They are not clearly Baroque works, lacking any sign of continuo for instance, nor are they yet of an advanced classical style being generally homophonic with the top voice dominating throughout.
Thus, despite the musicians’ clean, pointed and intelligent interpretation, Haydn’s quartet seemed ill-at-ease among the other works on the program. Further, the crisp and precise acoustics of the hall, created by its stone walls and unparallel surfaces (to avoid echo), provided additional support for the sound, but still couldn’t seem to add vigor to Haydn’s piece. Throughout I found myself wishing that Leisner had arranged a later quartet. If an unknown lutenist from the eighteenth century could have done so, why couldn’t Leisner?
After intermission, Leisner returned, this time with pianist William Ransom, to perform Hans Haug’s Fantasia for Guitar and Piano. Unfortunately, in the outer sections of the piece, Leisner’s mildly amplified guitar was drowned out by Ransom’s Steinway. In the central (and quieter) section, Leisner’s optimism and Ransom’s warm phrasing redeemed the piece.
Finally, the concert closed with Robert Schumann’s Quartet for Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello in E-flat Major, Op. 47, leaving Leisner off stage for a closing work that lasts just under a half hour. The most remarkable movement of this performance was the blisteringly fast Scherzo. However, the group toned down their now characteristic precision to bring richness and phrasing appropriate to the romanticism of Schumann’s work. There was a slight bump in intonation during the slower third movement, but Albers rescued it and saved the performance.
David Leisner is an amazing musician and prize of our culture. His taste, poise and passion bring out the best in the music he plays; attributes reflected in his compositions. However, it is a testament to his character that, despite the fact that this was his concert and vehicle, he was also humble enough to recognize talents in others and step aside so that they might be heard — I heartily thank him for that.
Joseph E. Morgan is a PhD graduate of Brandeis University, where he studied early German romantic opera. He lives and teaches in the Boston area.