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Kreisler, Gottschalk, and Mozart in Cozy Setting


Last night Charlemont’s Federated Church resounded to the sounds of music of Fritz Kreisler, who died 50 years ago, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and W. A. Mozart. The concert, part of the summer Mohawk Trails series, was a delightful opportunity to hear some lesser-known works in a cozy setting with great acousticsThe concert opened with four pieces by Fritz Kreisler (1875 – 1962): the songs “The Old Refrain” from the musical, The King Steps Out (1936) and “Song of the Lake” from the operetta, Sissy (1932), and the violin pieces Caprice Viennois and Schön Rosmarin. Estela Olevsky on piano collaborated with Maria Ferrante, soprano, on the former two, and Masako Yanagita, violin, on the latter two. This selection highlighted the contrasts which mark Kreisler as a composer and also set the challenge for performers essaying his music: how to present the rubato, the temporal freedom, of early-20th-century popular music and performance practices for today’s audiences? Ferrante embraced a style of singing now more familiar on the stages of Broadway than in concert halls, while Yanagita took her cue from recordings of Kreisler’s own performances, with the virtuoso mastering time and bending it to his own will in the service of his music. Ferrante gave voice to “The Old Refrain” with verve and dynamic range, although I found her forte on “ring” and “angels” in the final stanza to be too pronounced. Conversely, the subito piano on “departs” and “hearts” at the end of “Song of the Lake” so soft as to disappear. Yanagita brought out the bipolar nature of Caprice Viennois, with its dramatic and slow pronouncement across the violin’s range alternating immediately with the rapid yet singing passagework for which it, and Kreisler, were justly famous. In Schön Rosmarin, the lush loveliness of the legato tune came across very colorfully.

The celebration of Kreisler continued with the second-movement Scherzo, Allegro vivo, con spirito, from his String Quartet in A minor(1922), here performed by Joel Pitchon and Yanagita (violins), Ronald Gorevic (viola), and Marie-Volcy Pelletier (cello). The first theme, very much con spirito, is a rapid flurry of notes, here played with incisively tight ensemble work; the second theme is slower and more legato (again, the contrasts of Kreisler). This was a gorgeous invitation to learn more about Kreisler’s quartet, and personally I thought it a pity the program did not include this largely ignored string quartet in its entirety. I am curious to hear it now, so this concert ably served the purpose of inspiring curiosity about Kreisler’s music.

After Kreisler, Estela Olevsky and Maria Ferrante returned to the stage for five songs by Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829 – 1869). From New Orleans, Gottschalk led a life as colorful as the reputation of his native city and his compositions combine French and English elements, reminiscences of music in New Orleans during his childhood, a wealth of sounds spanning the spectrum of musical genres and traditions. The first song, Ave Maria, reminds us of the prevalence of Roman Catholicism in New Orleans in the 19th century. Using the canonical Latin text, Gottschalk composed a piece that is a thoughtful meditation on the words of this prayer, accompanied by a series of arpeggios on piano. The effect is lovely, even if this Ave Maria is very much akin to more famous settings of this prayer. Ferrante gave a generally solid interpretation of this song, although I, as one who can understand the Latin easily, regretted the elision of the two vowels in “tui” and the breath taken during “peccatoribus.” The second song was I Don’t See it Mama, telling a story between a headstrong girl, Celestina, and her mother, trying to marry her off to Smythe rather than the daughter’s preferred Cousin Harry. Unfortunately, Ferrante took on an affected and distracting Québécois accent for Celestina’s words in this song; we who know the difference are not amused. Third we heard “O Loving Heart, Trust On!,” a once-famous tune by Gottschalk that is very Romantic in vein as in musical setting. Fourth was Pensez à moi, another love song, and similarly the fifth and final number, Viens O ma Belle! These once-popular tunes are no less pleasing today for their obviously Romantic words and music. Ferrante has a pleasant voice, and although she made some choices I would not have in her interpretations, many embraced her readings of these songs with nary a worry or concern. Olevsky provided sensitive support throughout. On the whole, I wish Gottschalk had fared better in this outing, so as to create greater interest in him and his music, as well as a more accurate representation of the role of New Orleans (remembered and imagined) in these compositions.

Following intermission, the string players returned, joined by Peggy McAdams (viola) for Mozart’s “viola quintet,” String Quintet no. 4 in G mino, K. 516 (1787). This piece was chosen by Abba Bogin when this season was being planned and was his favorite chamber work by Mozart, so it now serves to honor Bogin’s memory. This work is marked by a darkness atypical of Mozart, filled with a sorrow and pathos well-served by the predominant key of g minor (and the slow Adagio in E-flat major), relieved only in the finale by an ebullient Allegro in G major. I am reminded of the pathos and emotional intensity Mozart captured in the Requiem when I search for a parallel to this work. The five players gave compelling voice to the sadness embodied in Mozart’s score, never losing sight of a fundamental humanity that suffuses this music. The tempi were stately, each note given its due weight; phrasing emphasized sighing descending figures; dynamic contrasts brought out the repetition and variation in the structure of each movement. The third-movement Adagio was a chorale, with resigned acceptance gradually replacing the pervading sadness of the previous two movements. The prominent viola lines helped shift the mood. In the finale Allegro, by keeping the sound more covered, this movement acquired a patina of sorrow so that the composition as a whole did not become unbalanced, disjointed, a joke before returning to the chipper happiness of major-keyed Mozart. In sum this was a fine rendition of the work, and a fine memorial to the much missed Bogin.

The late Abba Bogin, ingenium loci for the Mohawk Trail Concerts for many years, who died at the end of last August, was president of The Bohemians — the New York musicians’ club, a distinguished and venerable pianist, as well as versatile musician, and Co-Artistic Director of Mohawk Trail Concerts. The tribute in this concert was a fitting reminder of his love of music and devotion to this summer festival. To read more about Mohawk Trail Concerts, their history, and the continued dedication of Ruth Black to this venerable music festival, consider this article from last summer’s Amherst Bulletin here.

This concert repeats tonight at 7:30 in the same venue.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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