in: Reviews

August 27, 2012

Dancing into Fall in Wellfleet


Jon Manasse, clarinetist, and Jon Nakamatsu, pianist, presided over a splendid end to this year’s Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival on Friday, August 24th. As with the preceding concerts, the audience in Wellfleet’s Congregational Church was thrilled by revelatory programming and remarkable artists that the Festival’s two artistic directors invariably attract to the Outer Cape.

The evening began with Leonard Bernstein’s first published work, a clarinet sonata, followed by Dohnányi’s remarkable sextet for a motley assortment of instruments, and it ended with the Brahms G-minor piano quartet that seems written for the purpose of bringing a series of concerts to a triumphant conclusion.

Bernstein (1918-1990) published his Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in 1942, composing it during his student days at Curtis and aided purportedly by a clarinet he bought for four dollars in a pawnshop. Played often in concerts and competitions, with the piano and clarinet parts posing only modest technical demands while demonstrating plenty of melodic and rhythmic interest, its two movements are compact, at times soulful, at times playful, but lacking perhaps an overarching structure. It offers varied delights and presentiments of things to come, and Manasse, in his engaging introduction before the concert, noted that this may be the only work in existence with a marking (in the midst of the second movement) “giocoso, un poco crudo.” He challenged the audience to find the forbears of West Side Story, and Nakamatsu promptly offered two chords from the sonata that give the audience a first glimpse of “Somewhere.” When in the second movement the music turns to rapid-fire, jazzy dance motifs, the audience met the Manasse challenge easily.

The Sextet in C Major, op 37, by Ernst von Dohnányi (1877-1960) was written in 1935 but was first published after World War II in 1948, shortly before he left Europe to join the faculty of Florida State University, where he stayed until his death. Scored for piano, clarinet, horn, and string trio, the Sextet’s four movements provide a musical history lesson and travelogue that reflects the life of a composer who was prominent in Germany, Austria, Hungary, and the USA. As a young man, Dohnányi was thrilled by Brahms’s approbation for his early Piano Quintet No. 1, and his biographies repeatedly refer to his reverence for Brahms and other prominent Germanic romantics. But this work has a highly original voice throughout, built around two descending notes of varying stamp that appear frequently, and the striking last movement is a riotous, if somewhat heavy-footed, romp that feels as if it was written in a noisy helicopter traversing Germany’s Black Forest, Vienna (with Johann Strauss waltzing below it), and landing in Budapest, where Dohnányi played piano, conducted, and composed for the majority of his working life.

The concert ended with Johannes Brahms’s (1833-1897) Quartet in G minor for Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello, op 25. No need to add to the reams of exuberant prose extolling the virtues of Brahms’s most popular piano quartet. Its four movements simply have everything, and the last movement marked “Rondo alla Zingarese” invariably brings down the house.

Each sporting diverse and distinguished pedigrees, the players were Jennifer Frautschi, violin; Clive Greensmith, cello; Eric Ruske, horn; Rebecca Young, viola; and Manasse and Nakamatsu.  They gave us a spectacular concert, and when one considers how briefly the players were together, the ensemble was truly extraordinary.

What might they have tried differently, if awarded the gift of time and more familiarity with one another? I first heard a great clarinetist when my family came to this country in 1948 and settled in Larchmont, New York, at the same time as Reginald Kell, who many then considered pre-eminent among clarinetists. His son, Jeffrey, trying to cope with an English accent as was I, became one of my best third-grade friends. From those days, three things about his father remain imprinted. The first is that Benny Goodman, among others, was his student. Second, was when Jeff and I wanted to play at his house, we had to behave like mice (not easy), because dad was invariably upstairs practicing; he had a virtuosic temper, instantly exhibited if he heard a peep from us. And finally, the miraculous clarinet playing we heard: a warm sound with never a break, unbelievable rapid scales, and dynamics that ranged from an ear-splitting roar to a whisper. Last week in Wellfleet, also as part of the CCCMF, I heard two extraordinary clarinetists a week apart: David Krakauer, performed a variety of Klezmer music and reminded me of Kell’s shrieks. This week, Manasse brought memories of Kell’s warmth and vitality. Perhaps the one thing missing from both was an occasional whisper. Bernstein has only a few passages marked pianissimo in the clarinetist’s score, but a bit more dynamic contrast would have been welcome.

Dohnányi’s scoring poses problems, and the strings were overwhelmed at times by the two winds, particularly the horn. The composer must have been aware of the challenge. At times he doubles the strings, at times he lets them play alone, alternating with the winds. That worked well, as did Nakamatsu’s sensitivity in staying in the background (Dohnányi, a redoubtable pianist, was perhaps more kind to the strings than Brahms would have been in a similar ensemble). I don’t know this work, but found myself wondering if more repose, a tad of give and take, would have enriched the experience. But overall the playing was great, and the galumphing finale brought down the house.

For the Brahms, the Beaux Arts Trio recording, with Trampler playing viola, is my gold standard, but this performance certainly vied for a medal. Yet for my taste (shaped in large part by the precepts of the late Bernard Greenhouse), the strings’ start was so intense that too little was left for a climactic end to the first movement. The magical Intermezzo, with its muted strings, lacked ebb and flow, so that the listeners didn’t have much chance to take a breath. And for my aging (slowing) sense of tempo, the slow movement moved along too quickly, thereby blurring its architecture that has such grandeur. But to each his own, and the finale was magnetic. They could have played even faster, given the exemplary individual “chops,” but I thought they got it just right.

Two standouts in the evening: Once again, Nakamatsu has everything. He’s truly the complete pianist and musician. The way he led into the ending of the first movement of the Brahms was an object lesson in the rare art of making each note have its own unique character while it contributes to a long phrase. What facility he has, and he can sing, proclaim, recede, dominate,… an amazing artist! And we also heard a remarkable cellist and musician. In addition to a phenomenal pizzicato, Greensmith, a member of the Tokyo Quartet that, sadly, will give its last concert next July, has a special ability to lead, to help furnish structure to a one-time ensemble. Both attributes again brought to mind Greenhouse, whose cello sound still resounds in this hall.

Lastly, the stringed instruments: the Outer Cape’s many fiscal challenges could be helped significantly if it could sell the Strad, Guarneri and Maggini instruments that passed through its towns this past season. Frautschi plays a magnificent Stradivari, formerly the possession of Joseph Fuchs, the redoubtable violinist who concertized into his 90s. Young played on the oldest instrument of the year, the New York Philharmonic’s Maggini viola, created around 1600 in Brescia. Antedating Frautschi’s fiddle by more than 100 years, the dark, rich sound of Brescian instruments inspired the Guarneri contralto voice, contrasting strikingly with the Amati heritage that inspired Stradivari’s more soprano, silvery edge. Meanwhile, we were reminded also how fine some contemporary instruments are. In the second half of the past century, Simone Sacconi was a major inspiration to today’s luthiers. His cello held up just fine under Greensmith’s fingers, although I confess that I wished he had been playing on the Greenhouse Strad heard over past years so often in this church.

What a shame the CCCMF fills only four weeks. But there’s some consolation. At the end of a season with record-breaking attendance, two exciting encores are scheduled for October. They’ll help make the wait for next summer a little shorter!

Tom Delbanco is the Koplow-Tullis Professor of General Medicine and Primary Care at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital. An avid violinist since age nine, he has particular interest in the evolution of stringed instruments from the 16th century on.

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