Chameleon Arts Ensemble’s program, centering on Schoenberg’s late Romantic response to Brahms and Wagner and his transmission to two students, Berg and Kirchner, took place last night at the Goethe-Institut Boston. It is the first of three concerts that Chameleon will perform this year in a Schoenberg Mini-Festival; the April and May concerts will trace Schoenberg’s further development and influence on 20th century music.
The concert began with Schoenberg’s evocative Ein Stelldichein (A Rendezvous), inspired by a poem of Richard Dehmel, a popular pre-WWI German poet. The piece was begun in 1905 as a work for chamber orchestra, but never completed. Schoenberg wrote 90 measures of the slow section and sketches for 44 measures of a fast section and Chameleon chose to perform only from the part that Schoenberg had completed, ending at measure 77. A notable feature of the piece is a move away from explicit narrative to one in which the narrative basis controls the mood without being directly programmatic, a method that Schoenberg used thereafter for the rest of his life. It opened with dark piano chords played by Vivian Chang-Freihet, followed by an uncanny (Unheimliche – “the opposite of familiar”) theme on clarinet played by Gary Gorczyca, both nicely emphasizing the loss of narrative. The unearthliness was echoed by Nancy Dimock’s oboe, with a shimmering and anxious violin from Joanna Kurkowicz and a sad/lost cello from Rafael Popper-Keizer. The piece evoked a feeling of being lost in a strange world, the opposite of a rendezvous, or a rendezvous with solitude, closing on a wistful duo between clarinet and cello.
Unlike the Schoenberg piece, which showcases critical steps in the composer’s journey to becoming the mature master we know, Leon Kirchner’s Duo II for violin and piano is a late work, composed in 2001 as a memorial to violinist Felix Galimir. It is a marvelously complex piece for violin and piano, played here by Joanna Kurkowicz and Qing Jiang. From the edgy, taut opening through the more reflective later sections, Kurkowicz made her violin express a wide range of psychic truths, alternately plaintive, mournful, manic and forceful. Jiang’s piano echoed and supported the mood of the violin, but as an independent voice. The work presented a musical portrait, reminiscences of the departed and an homage to the gift of existence.
Wagner wrote his Wesendonck Lieder, “Five poems by Mathilde Wesendonck for a female voice and piano” while he was in the throes of beginning Tristan und Isolde. He was at the time under the spell of both Schopenhauer and Wesendonck. From Wagner’s letters, it is clear that Mathilde returned the feeling and that Wagner saw himself as Tristan to her Isolde.
Featured guest artist, rising star Elizabeth Keusch, soprano, performed with Chang-Freiheit pianist. Coming after the dense, complex Kirchner, Wagner’s piano-writing seemed simplistic, but fortunately the voice part is strong. Keusch’s singing was clear, rich and honest — pure and noble in Stehe still, glorying in pain and suffering in Schmerzen, then wistful, sad but strong in Träume. She will appear again in Chameleon’s May concert, which includes Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.
Where Wagner asked for time to stop in Stehe still, Berg makes his music turn into time itself in the Four Pieces for Clarinet, Op. 5, which opened the second half of the program. As Adorno noted, the music is all development, atonal clusters of notes that speak and are replaced, just as moments of time vanish. The pieces, dedicated to Schoenberg, are detailed and intricate miniatures, with precise instructions provided by Berg for tempo, dynamics and articulation. As played here by Gorczyca, and Chang-Freiheit, they were exquisite gems, musical haikus containing an entire world of complexity — mischievous in the Massig, dark and mysterious in the next piece (Sehr langsam), playful in the outer parts of the Sehr rasch with a hypnotic middle section and ending with a Langsam puzzle: what does it all mean? If these are the pieces that Schoenberg criticized, he was misguided.
The Piano Quartet No. 1 in g, Op. 25, marked a major step in Brahms’s development — the first piece in his mature style. Despite initially mixed reviews, including by the first performer, Clara Schumann, it has deservedly become a favorite piece. Schoenberg showed his admiration by orchestrating it, as a virtual Brahms Symphony No. Five. Pianist Qing Jiang opened with the broad, lyrical theme that also reappears, disguised, as the fiery Zingarese theme in the last movement. The strings — Kurkowicz, violin, Popper-Keizer, cello and Scott Woolweaver, viola — played with appropriate force to balance the strong piano part. The first movement could have had a bit more simmering intensity, but the remaining three movements were absolutely perfect. The Intermezzo was tense, exciting and mysterious. The Andante conveyed some of the same feeling of the strange impenetrability of existence that Schoenberg put in his Stelldichein. The Rondo was alternately forceful, lively, tender and manic, dense and even a bit threatening at times, displaying Brahms’s deep understanding of the telluric forces of folklore. What the programming and the performance revealed was the sheer love of density that Brahms transmitted to Schoenberg and that Schoenberg in turn transmitted to Berg and Kirchner.