in: Reviews

December 9, 2012

Perennial Freshness at the Gardner

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On Sunday afternoon the Gardner Museum’s resident chamber orchestra, A Far Cry, offered a fresh presentation of innovative pieces: two sets of folkloric pieces scored for chamber orchestra, a marvelous Vivaldi concerto for four violins, a pair of Argentine tangos and an immense, deep string quartet re-scored for chamber orchestra.

The program began with prolific Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Pelimannit (“The Fiddlers”), originally his Op. 1 set of six short piano pieces based on folk tunes from the Ostrobothnia region of northern Finland. Twenty years later, in 1972, Rautavaara set five of the pieces as a suite for string orchestra. With exquisite attention to rhythm  and timing of accents, the Criers began with the dissonant, broad bow strokes announcing the arrival of the fiddlers, followed by evocative portrayals of Kopsin Jonas practicing alone in the woods and organist Samuel Dikstrom practicing Bach. The strange and primitive elements were skillfully brought out in the foreboding Devil’s polka with its odd scratching sounds and the concluding brief but nicely barbaric Jumping Dance.

The Vivaldi Concerto for Four Violins in B Minor, Op. 3, No. 10, RV 580, is part of a groundbreaking set of 12, named L’estro harmonico (rendered “Harmonic Inspiration” in this program’s notes), that Vivaldi published in 1711 at a time when the concerto form was still rather new. Vivaldi gave the form both lightness and strength, helping to shape its future course, and No. 10 is a quintessential example. The Criers took a crisp, energetic approach, passionate but free of sentimentality. The perfect balance between blending and separation of the individual voices, coupled with a careful control of tempo in this performance helped us to hear the piece as the radical new work that it was. Especially noteworthy was the emotional and artistic depth that they revealed in the last movement Allegro.

Piazzolla had been composing remarkable tangos for performance by his bandoneón orchestra for years before Nadia Boulanger recognized these pieces as his fresh and original contribution to music and gave him the freedom to focus on them as serious pieces. The two tangos played here, Coral and Cintengue, were scored for chamber orchestra, and display the characteristic grittiness, rapidly shifting emotions via sudden changes in tempo, and comprehensive range of emotions in Piazzolla’s neuvo tango music. Especially notable in Cintengue was the sharp pizzicato motif that dominated, essentially becoming a thematic element of its own.

Bartók’s six (or seven, depending on how you count) Romanian Folk Dances of 1915 started as a set of pieces for solo piano, and were arranged by the composer for string orchestra two years later. They are known and loved by intermediate piano students worldwide, and by string players largely in a version for violin and piano arranged by Bartók’s friend Zoltán Székely. The performance here was, simply put, the best I have ever heard of these pieces. The Stick Dance and the Sash Dance were sharply accented, bringing out the unusual rhythmic patterns, In One Spot beautifully evoked the exotic Arabic sounds. The Criers skillfully brought out the combination of folk elements with the characteristic Bartók sound in Romanian Polka, and the concluding Fast Dances were joyous, exuberant and finally wonderfully frenetic.

We have Sir Neville Marriner to thank for the weightiest piece on the program, William Walton’s Sonata for Strings. Walton had written his monumental String Quartet in A in 1947, his best work since the 1939 Violin Concerto. Marriner wanted a piece for the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and eventually persuaded Walton to orchestrate the Quartet. It was completed in 1971, with assistance in the last movement from Malcolm Arnold under Walton’s supervision. Ironically, Marriner’s own recording does not do justice to the piece, because the orchestra is treated as massed, conducted sections, thereby losing the chamber music nature of the work. In contrast, our self-conducted Criers brought out every distinct element with a unity of purpose that displayed the marvelous complexity of the work. In particular, their rendering of the Allegro first movement made the logic of the elaborate and intricate movement audible, making sense of a structure that sometimes can sound episodic and arbitrary. The devilish presto in turn conveyed deep anxiety, inner dissonance and inner fragmentation. The lento is thought to be dedicated to Walton’s mistress Lady Wimborne who was dying of cancer in 1947, and the Criers gave it the elegiac elegance of a great Van Dyck portrait. The rondo finale seemed to urge a modernist resolve in the face of doomed beauty, a gritty determination to forge a future in an uncharted universe. The Quartet was composed shortly after the end of World War II, when much of London lay in ruins and India’s independence had forced a partition and the creation of Pakistan.

Were the Criers concerned that the Walton would leave us anxious and depressed? As an encore, they performed a delightfully schmalzy arrangement by cellist Alistair Eng of the Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 6, evoking memories of Boston’s old Cafe Budapest.

Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.

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