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Strings, Clarinet and Piano Timbres Virtuosic


The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center brought together six young and more seasoned players and featured unusual timbral combinations of strings, clarinet, and piano. The satisfying program on November 11th at Calderwood Hall at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was carried off by the Lincoln Center players with characteristic panache and sensitivity.

Haydn’s String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 74, no. 3 (“The Horseman”), is one of the six “Apponyi” quartets (Op. 71, nos. 1-3, and Op. 74, nos. 1-3) composed in 1793, in between the composer’s two highly successful London visits in 1791-92 and 1794-95. Intended as a public concert piece rather than for performance in an intimate salon, its forthright unison opening evoked orchestral sonorities, while the second theme was an oom-pah-pah village waltz with pizzicato cello adding a percussive touch. Furious unison triplets opened the development, which ended on a strident dissonance only to fall back meekly enough as the cello softly introduced the return. The Largo assai that followed, in the surprising key of E major, brought a strong textural contrast with its heartfelt song in four-part harmony. After a contrasting section in minor featuring an imitative duet for cello and first violin, the reprise allowed the first violin to shine in elaborate ornamentation of the song theme. The Menuetto began innocently enough, but ended as a jolly dance with rollicking arpeggios. The Finale, Allegro con brio, returned to the brash spirit of the first movement, giving prominence this time to the first violin with offbeats and virtuosic passage work. Imitative play alternated with ferocious harmonies in the development, followed by multiple “false returns” of the opening motive before the actual reprise finally took place.

For the remainder of the program, three pieces from the 1930s that combined strings with piano and clarinet opened up yet more diverse sound worlds. In Darius Milhaud’s delightful Suite for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano, Op. 157b (1936), the young Greek violinist Areta Zhulla was joined by the Korean-American pianist Soyeon Lee and the Canadian clarinetist Romie de Guise-Langlois. The brash opening movement entitled Ouverture featured insistent ostinato rhythms that were carried off with virtuosic fervor. In the Divertissement that followed, lively counterpoint for violin and clarinet gave way to a lyrical duo for piano and clarinet that revelled in sheer beauty of sound. The third movement, Jeu, a light-footed dance, featured a duet for violin and clarinet, with the latter instrument in its most expressive middle range. After a ceremonial Introduction, marked by bell-like octaves in the piano, the fourth movement (Final) launched into a fast march with a rollicking, jazzy conclusion in perfectly balanced ensemble.

Although scored for the same ensemble as Milhaud’s Suite, Béla Bartók’s Contrasts is a much weightier piece. Benny Goodman’s 1938 commission called for a short piece in two movements. Instead, Bartók produced a work in three movements with Hungarian titles that makes virtuosic demands on all three players; in 1940 he recorded it in New York with Goodman and the violinist Josef Szigeti. The opening Verbunkos, a stylized traditional Hungarian recruiting dance, pitted a rhapsodic clarinet melody against pizzicati in the violin. As the clarinet became ever more shrill and the violin joined in the melody, the “pizzicato” passed to the piano’s left hand as a discrete background. The piano then took the lead in a snapping dotted-rhythm motive, answered by the clarinet in shrill virtuosity. In the second movement, Pihenö (Relaxation), the contrasting timbres of clarinet and violin engaged in a contrapuntal duet, itself contrasting with the timbral empathy of the clarinet-piano duet that followed, while violin pizzicati provided background punctuation. The Sebes (Fast Dance) finale held true to its title in a furious perpetuum mobile relieved by a lyrical middle section. In the jazzy ending, the violin led off with a foot-tapping cadenza in which the clarinet and piano joined for a final flourish of ensemble virtuosity.

The program concluded with Aaron Copland’s Sextet for Clarinet, String Quartet, and Piano (1937), an arrangement by the composer of his earlier Short Symphony (1932-33). This is the serious, modernist Copland, heard most clearly in the jagged opening Allegro vivace. In the second movement, Lento, beautifully transparent scoring prevailed in a four-note descending legato clarinet theme set against smooth harmonies in the strings and left-hand octaves in the piano. A duet for clarinet and viola was intensely expressive, contrasting with percussive accents in the piano. The angular language of the opening movement returned in the Finale.

Virginia Newes, who now lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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