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Meat and Potatoes from Marlboro


Marlboro Music Festival takes its touring program seriously. Sunday they sent six excellent musicians for a meat-and-potatoes program featuring works from the 18th century (Mozart’s String Quintet in E Flat, the 19th century (the Schumann Piano Quintet), and the 20th (Bartók String Quartet No. 6). Two — the Mozart and Schumann — were the last string pieces their composers wrote, and the Bartok the last string quartet he wrote.

The Mozart String Quintet in E Flat Major, K. 614 (1791) is the least performed of his four major quintets, possibly because its first movement is so difficult for the first violin, here played heroically by Bella Hristova. The other violinist, Robin Scott, played second here and in the Bartók, and first in the Schumann. The two violinists, it became clear, had musical temperaments as different as those of the two violists, Vicki Powell and Dmitri Murrath, who also switched places during the program. The sensitive cellist was Marcy Rosen (for whom I was briefly an English teacher at Curtis when she was a very gifted teenager 40 years ago). Mozart’s Andante evoked the second movement of his Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, while the fourth movement Allegro was exuberantly lively, more Haydnesque than most Mozart. It was good to hear this neglected quintet played so well.

Bartók’s String Quartet No. 6, BB 119 (1939) is surely one of the most wrenchingly sad pieces in the quartet literature (or anywhere else for that matter). Two things are important about it: the year 1939, and “Mesto” which starts each of the four movements and translates as “sad,” surely an understatement. Bartók wrote this when his mother was mortally ill. Moreover, Fascists had taken over Hungary, and he realized he soon would have to go into exile. Originally, the fourth movement was intended as cheerful, but then his mother died and it turned into a portrait of grief; it recapitulates the material of the first movement in a slow tempo with mournful mood and ends with a fragment of the viola melody that opens the quartet. I grew up on the Juilliard Quartet LPs of these quartets, as well as those of the Mozart Quintets; and while the Bartók received a very good performance, I can’t help but feel a quartet that’s been together for a long time somehow plays these pieces in a different way than a  — pace — group of prize-winning soloists who will only play these works a few times together.

The Bartók famously begins slowly and mournfully with a solo viola for about 20 measures. Vicki Powell played the important viola part excellently. Her pizzicato accompaniment to the cello recitative in the second movement had extraordinary power and the necessary bite that was often missing in this quartet. The sixth quartet is Bartók’s most emotional and personal, as he was reacting to the onset of yet another world war, the end of his hope for a future in Hungary. Things could not have looked bleaker, and that is what we hear in each “Mesto” that opens the first three movements and engulfs the fourth. I don’t remember ever having tears in my eyes at the end of a quartet, but I sure had them here.

The Schumann Piano Quintet in E-flat is his best piece of chamber music and one of the greatest of all piano quintets. The pianist here was Cynthia Raim, who seemed to be playing very nicely indeed. Regrettably, we were sitting on the ground floor with her back to us; the piano lid had been removed, and I could only guess that the sound drifted up but never made it to our floor. I grew up listening to Rudolph Serkin playing this and had hoped to hear Raim, a student of his whom I had heard about over the years. But Gardner acoustics dictated otherwise. I will try to hear her another time, because what I did hear was lovely. Violist Dmitri Murrath’s playing throughout the quintet was memorable. (The audience was full of distinguished violists.) This piece is always a great concert closer, and the young string players with brilliant futures played it very well, indeed.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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  1. I had the fortune to hear this program in Philadelphia last Thursday. I can report that Raim’s piano playing in the Schumann was remarkably well balanced (I find it is easy for the pianist to dominate in this work). She did not overdo the opening chords, for example, but played with more prominence when it was more clearly her turn to shine.

    Comment by Mark — May 1, 2012 at 11:55 am

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