IN: Reviews

Schnittke, Karttunen, Work on Mahler, Brahms


To fill, or nearly fill, Jordan Hall for a chamber concert on a Monday night requires special repertoire or special performers. At the First Monday program on November 7, NEC procured all the above. First of all, as this was part of NEC’s “Mahler Unleashed” season, there was the only extant bit of that composer’s chamber music, his Piano Quartet in A minor (that is, the one movement of same he completed). Add to that Alfred Schnittke’s contemplation of the unfinished bit of the scherzo to Mahler’s quartet. Then, an unfamiliar but intriguing large chamber work, the Nonet of Louis Spohr, and finally the Brahms Piano Quintet in its original (sort of, see below) incarnation as a cello quintet.

The performer draw was an all-star assortment of players mainly surrounding distinguished cellist and NEC faculty member Paul Katz, with the young but impressive Jupiter String Quartet and other notables we will mention later. The only thing lacking was program notes, which were provided only for the Mahler and Schnittke. In partial compensation, Katz provided oral exegesis, but of necessity these comments were somewhat truncated and anecdotal (more on his remarks, later). The Spohr in particular could have used more explication.

One should feel some pity for chamber musicians who love Mahler. While great composers in other media, for example Verdi, produced at least one mature work for small forces, all there is from Mahler is one completed movement and one abandoned fragment of the next, from a piano quartet written at age 16 as a school exercise. As such, and presumably because someone like Robert Fuchs was grading it, it is largely devoid of the characteristics that now appeal to listeners of his symphonies and song cycles. The movement came to light only in the 1960s — luckily, at a time when interest in Mahler was picking up — and has since become popular not only with professional performers but with students. It is mellifluous, competent, with a few points of interest such as a unison trill at several spots; but one can see why young Mahler got bored with it after it had served its academic purpose. One interesting thing about it is its rather slow tempo for an opening sonata-form movement: if you like, you can see a prefiguring of the Third, Seventh, Ninth and Tenth symphonies. The foursome that performed it Monday — NEC’s Lucy Chapman, violin, Dimitri Murrath, viola, and Katz, with Gloria Chien, piano — were resonant, lucid and commanding from the first note and all the way through; we couldn’t hope for a better reading.

The 24-bar fragment Mahler left of a scherzo to follow this movement became fodder for the febrile imagination of Russian composer Alfred Schnittke, when commissioned in 1988 to use it somehow to create a companion piece to the completed movement. With only the semblance of a between-movement pause, the quartet proceeded to this six-minute Quartet, which took a motif from Mahler’s fragment and sent it to the Hall of Mirrors at the fun house, stretching, squashing and refracting it, not without considerable technical virtuosity and contrapuntal legerdemain, in high ghoulish Schnittke style. After a great dissonant climax, Schnittke calmly sets out Mahler’s 24 bars, presumably much slowed down, unless it was also Mahler’s intention to write an adagio scherzo. There followed a woozy few chords for coda that Katz, in his introduction perhaps unguardedly called “after the lobotomy.” Again, the performances were, or appeared to be (since we haven’t heard this piece before) completely spot-on.

The first half of the program closed in a much more genial vein with the Nonet in F Major, op. 31, of Ludwig a/k/a Louis Spohr (1784-1859). Once a towering figure (in 1885 W.S. Gilbert had the eponymous character in The Mikado admonish that music-hall singers be required to attend “… a series/Of masses and fugues and ‘ops’/By Bach, interwoven/With Spohr and Beethoven/At classical Monday Pops”—exalted company indeed), he wrote in all genres, is noted as an early developer of Romantic opera along with his contemporary Weber, and was a prodigious violin virtuoso. Some of his 18 concertos remain in repertory, as do his four well-regarded clarinet concertos. He further committed ten symphonies, 36 string quartets, one of the first post-Schumann piano quintets (a very good one), and, well, you get the idea.

His Nonet for wind quintet, string trio, and contrabass sits perfectly on the cusp between Classical and Romantic idioms. Its opening movement takes a little motif and snakes it around all the instruments, for which he writes idiomatically with grace and flair. The other three movements are all equally charming, especially the slow movement’s extended antiphonal dialogue between winds and strings. It is music that smiles and, as someone once said of Chadwick, sometimes winks. There are Haydnesque pauses in the finale that raise involuntary chuckles of appreciation. We overheard one audience member grumble that such lightness didn’t belong on a program with Mahler and Brahms, but let’s face it, a diet so unrelentingly heavy can induce indigestion. So we say, hooray for Spohr. The performance, again, could not have been better, from Chapman, Murrath, Natasha Brofsky, cello and Donald Palma, contrabass (the latter two also NEC faculty), flutist Julie Scolnik, and BSO wind players Robert Sheena, oboe, Michael Wayne, clarinet, Suzanne Nelsen, bassoon, and James Sommervile, horn.

One might be tempted to think of Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F minor, op. 34, with a second cello instead of the piano as the “Music Minus One” version, but that was in fact how Brahms first wrote it. As recounted by Katz, when Brahms first heard it performed, he had misgivings and withdrew it, rewriting it as a two-piano sonata before Clara Schumann persuaded him to split the difference, as it were, by making it a piano quintet. English musician Sebastian Brown reconstructed the original version (Brahms destroyed it), but Finnish composer Anssi Karttunen thought he could do better, so at the request of the Jupiter String Quartet (Nelson Lee and Megan Freivogel, violins, Liz Freivogel, viola, and Daniel McDonough, cello) this was the version they performed with Katz.

You all know the Brahms Piano Quintet, right? If not, go have a listen, as we’re not going to describe the music. (For our money, you can’t do better than Sir Clifford Curzon with the Budapest Quartet.) We’ll wait….

Now, we don’t know just how Brahms scored that string quintet, but the Karttunen version has many virtues that, while not likely to blow away the piano version, have their own attractions. For one thing, the strings’ liberation from the piano’s dominant sonority permits access to the intricacies and genius of Brahms’s interior lines and enables one to parse the work’s form more clearly. The danger of this scoring, which the arranger and performers largely avoided, is a bottom-heaviness that is unmitigated by the separate piano timbre. In particular, the opening of the slow movement, always a glorious moment, is especially affecting without the piano. The only place we really missed the keyboard sound was in the scherzo; the finale, as rendered by the strings, had an almost gemütlich feel at times, but mostly the performance was as high-intensity as one could imagine. Everyone played as if they had something to prove, and they made their case convincingly: it was all claps on the back as they made their way offstage for their multiple curtain calls. We’re not aware of any recordings of the Karttunen arrangement (there is at least one of the Brown), but if these folks produce one, it would be well worth the quarter-inch of shelf space alongside your favorite renditions of the piano version.

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.



2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Delighted to report that the Mahler fragment and Schnittke “contemplation” (love that word) will be repeated, with the same players, on Nov. 15.

    Comment by Rob Schmieder — November 10, 2011 at 1:41 pm

  2. I would like to remind that Schnittke has his own 4 quartets that are unfortunately very seldom played and if played then very seldomly properly played.  The Schnittke quartets are truly superb. They are a bit synthetically composed (like most of Schnittke music it has a bit “manufactured” taste) but they are wonderful.

    Comment by Romy the Cat — November 10, 2011 at 5:37 pm

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