Irving Gifford Fine’s is a name now more current among musicologists than musicians (although his Partita for Woodwind Quintet is a permanent fixture in that ensemble’s repertory), a fate that has befallen many excellent composers throughout music history. Association with institutions can be a helpful thing for a composer’s posterity, and in Fine’s case that institution is Brandeis University, whose music and overall creative arts program he oversaw and fostered nearly from its beginning. Every year Brandeis opens its concert season with an Irving Fine tribute concert, and this year’s took place on September 10 at Slosberg Hall, featuring three-quarters of the Lydian String Quartet (namely Daniel Stepner, violin, Mary Ruth Ray, viola, and Joshua Gordon, cello), plus guest pianist Ya-Fei Chuang. Their program encompassed Ravel, Fauré and of course Fine. (Sorry, punsters, in this economy no one’s doing Fine and d’Indy this year).
The program began with Fine’s Fantasia for String Trio, a late work dating from 1956. (The composer’s life and work were prematurely cut off by a heart attack at age 47 in 1962). Long associated with neoclassicism, Fine chose dodecaphony, according to Stepner’s pre-concert oral program notes, as a means to break away from “the Boston neoclassical fold”; although with the style’s having lost Stravinsky and Arthur Berger to serialism some time earlier and even eventually Aaron Copland and Walter Piston, Fine’s transition seems now to be more a matter of persuading himself that the trending thing was suitable for him than a lone cry of artistic independence. Be that as it may, Fine’s Fantasia — a three-movement affair in closely connected sections — is one of the most attractive serial works we know of, integrating Fine’s typically soft-edged sound into the serial mix. Its tempo structure is slow-fast-slow, with relatively brief outer movements surrounding a ruggedly fleet and substantial scherzo. The slow movements are deliberate, sober and lyrical; Stepner assessed the close of the finale as betraying bitterness, but — at least as performed by the Lydian trio — struck us more like a sigh of resignation. To what, we have no idea; unlike Mahler and Finzi, Fine’s end was not long foretold. The ensemble was operating in top form throughout, with everyone in firm control of technique and dynamics and keeping textures splendidly clear.
There followed another not-that-frequently performed work (in fact, the entire program consisted of pieces falling into that category, a tendency of which we approve heartily), the Sonata for Violin and Cello by Maurice Ravel. This piece gave Ravel much more trouble than its small forces would suggest. It took him nearly two years to finish; its first movement appeared in 1920 as part of a tribute to the recently deceased Debussy, but the rest of its four movements didn’t gel until 1922. Part of the delay may be explained by Ravel’s creative block following the trauma of World War I, in which he, like his sometime pupil Vaughan Williams, served as an ambulance driver. Another related cause might be the work’s content, which can be read as a reflection on the war. Never one to wear his heart on his sleeve, Ravel permitted himself, as he did in La Valse the year he began the sonata, to express bitter vituperation against militarism (especially in the mocking military flourishes in the finale, similar in affect to Rebecca Clarke’s piano trio) and the vapid and self-absorbed societies that slouched toward war, notably in the satirical invocation of grand nineteenth-century virtuoso styles that infect the savage second-movement scherzo. Stepner and Gordon have this work a technically superb reading, though we have heard recorded performances — we have not previously heard it live — that nailed this context better, for example by holding back the tempo of the first movement to draw out the contrast between its elegant lines and the histrionics of the second. We also found some fault in insufficient contrast between speaking and accompanying voices in the first movement. Otherwise, both performers swept through this work’s many technical nettles with gratifying aplomb.
The official title of this concert was “Music for 2, 3, and 4,” but the counting should have begun at one, since after intermission Chuang returned the program to the subject of Irving Fine with three short piano solos, the first, Hommage à Mozart, a delightful and elegant exercise in wrong-note neoclassicism. We’re not sure whether Fine had some particular Mozart work or works in mind, but this was a gentle 6/8 number of endearing sweetness. The last two pieces were taken from Fine’s Diversions for piano, the first a surprisingly perky “Koko’s Lullabye” and the closer an off-kilter, bitonal “Flamingo Polka,” a satirical romp reminiscent of Shostakovich’s polka from The Age of Gold, but referring more to the Pittsburgh branch of the polka family than the European one. Chuang was not often required by this music to exhibit great power, except in the polka where she delivered the needful, but she applied exquisite delicacy and finesse and superb dynamic control that could shade a single run with three or four distinct hues.
All the available forces joined to close the program with the second, the less-heard of Fauré’s two piano quartets, his Quartet in G minor, op. 45. This piece was a bit off Fauré’s beaten path compositionally because of its greater use of cyclic form than most of the composer’s oeuvre, and in that it has passages of considerable vigor and force, particularly in the scherzo and finale, as well as parts of the opening Allegro molto moderato, along with his more typically languid, ruminative ones. We found the performers a bit tentative in much of the first movement, giving a somewhat laid-back reading until the recapitulation, which picked up steam through the coda before the movement’s soft landing. The Scherzo was an instrumental tour-de-force that all the performers seemed to relish and thrive on, especially Chuang. Their dynamics were very well judged overall. The slow movement, which sits in serene isolation from the melodically linked other movements, highlighted what is a constant feature of the piece in general, a strong melodic interest in the viola, to which Ray applied a rich and plummy sound. The movement’s many longueurs began to wear on us, relieved by several instances of striking harmonic imagination. The finale, as mentioned, was brisk and infectious; the ensemble again showed superior group savvy in its rhythmic cohesion and dynamic control.