in: Reviews

May 14, 2012

BCMS: Delightful, Deeply Felt Playing


Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello, completed in 1922 and sometimes called the Duo Sonata, has never been a popular concert item; it still strikes many listeners as an ascetic, bitter product of Ravel’s shattered psyche after the Great War. The different movements show his experimentation in complex form and tonality, varying between the amiable harmony like that of the prewar Piano Trio and a gritty, percussive idiom with complex polychords such as Bartók might have written. The first movement was originally written for a supplement, published in 1920, to the Revue musicale in memory of Debussy, who had died in 1918; in this movement Ravel oscillates a pair of minor and major triads in a blend that recurs motivically in the finale; there is some fine color, too, in the elaborate use of string harmonics, a favorite device of the composer. The second movement continues the minor-major alternation with harsh pizzicati. Both these movements show Ravel’s recurring fondness for A-minor harmony, as in the Piano Trio, the scherzo movement of the F-major String Quartet, and the violin sonata that he wrote during his student years. (If anyone is interested, I have written more about this strange work in The Cambridge Companion to Ravel, edited by Deborah Mawer, Cambridge University Press, 2000.) Jonathan Crow and Ronald Thomas gave this rarely-heard work an energetic, even fearless performance. The audience found it so unfamiliar that they applauded prematurely after a big cadence in the finale; this was probably just as much Ravel’s fault, but the performers seemed to be forgiving.

The D-Minor Piano Trio of 1894 keeps Anton Arensky’s (1861-1906) name alive today. A follower of Tchaikovsky, who hired him at the Moscow Conservatory, Arensky was a good pianist and a technically impeccable composer whose growing reputation was cut short by his early death at age 45; in his last years, he even encouraged the young Igor Stravinsky. The BCMS program notes compare this expressive trio with Mendelssohn’s piano trio in the same key, but I hear more of Schumann and still more of Chopin in it; others might even call it Russian Brahms; but there’s no doubt about its expert construction and lovely melodic writing. Mihae Lee, pianist, joined Crow and Thomas in a deeply felt performance that reminded me of a fine reading of quite a few years back, by the venerable group of Heifetz-Piatigorsky-Rubinstein, a recording which you may still be able to find.

There is still controversy as to whether Schubert’s great Quintet in A Major, op. 114, D 667, known everywhere as the “Trout” Quintet, was composed in 1819 when Schubert was 22, as long assumed from indirect evidence, or in some later year like 1825, as might be surmised from the maturity of the style; the same question arises in connection with the A-Major Sonata for piano, op. 120, D 664. We might have a better appraisal of the situation if we had some documentary evidence, but the autographs of both works are lost.

The “Trout” performance on Sunday night was spirited and expressive, in every way delightful. Lee, Crow, and Thomas were joined by Marcus Thompson, viola, and Edwin Barker, double bass. The ensemble was particularly assured, relaxed and cohesive, and it’s a fair bet that all of the players had performed this famous music many times before. I will point out that the violinist played the high trills in the second half of the first “Trout” variation on octave lower than Schubert indicated; this is a wise expedient that makes for much easier playability and it injures the music not at all.

Arnold Schoenberg, in a lesson with Alban Berg, commanded him flatly: “Never write what a copyist could write for you!” The implication was: no matter what passages you might be repeating when you compose (for instance, in the recapitulation section of a sonata form, when the succession of events is able to be directly correlated with what happens in the exposition), be sure to make it different in some way. The “Trout” Quintet has to be considered an object lesson in how not to do what Schoenberg advised.

The quintet has five movements, three of which can be considered in sonata form. The first movement is formally the most complex; it actually has a development section (mm. 147-209), for the rest, the recapitulation section (mm. 210-317) is a virtually unaltered transposition of most of the exposition (mm. 25-146), with 14 bars removed. The second movement is simpler: it has an exposition (mm. 1-60) and a recapitulation (mm. 61-121) but no development, and the recap has one extra bar but is otherwise a literal transposition of the expo. The fifth movement is the simplest of all: the recap (mm. 237-472) is a transposition, unaltered except for a few octave placements, of the expo (mm. 1-236), and once again there is no development. How could a great composer like Schubert get away with being so formally lazy and irresponsible? The answer is simple: the melody throughout is so flowing and rich, the harmony so expressive, the rhythm so lively, and the music as whole so irresistibly fresh, that the formal oversimplification, if that is what it actually is, doesn’t matter in the least. The other two movements are a well-wrought scherzo and a set of six variations on Schubert’s own song Die Forelle (Trout), op. 32, D 550, the sixth variation making use of the piano accompaniment to the original song.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony. His most recent book is Schubert’s Great C Major: Biography of a Symphony (Pendragon Press). His website is here.


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