April’s First Monday concert at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall presented three pieces related only by the fact that unique musicians were available to realize them. The first half featured younger musicians with interesting credentials: Britten’s Canticle II: “Abraham and Isaac” had Ian Howell singing countertenor in a part originally written for soprano, and the harpist Jessica Zhou was the focus of Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro. The Brahms Clarinet Quintet occupied the second half, with Richard Stolzman, still at seventy-one, the best known classical clarinetist in America.
Britten wrote five Canticles at intervals throughout his career- the first was written in 1947, the fifth in 1974. They are written for small vocal forces in various combinations, and all evince a spiritual intensity. The second Canticle is overtly religious, using the text of the Biblical Abraham and Isaac story as it was performed in the fifteenth-century Chester Mystery Plays. The same music was repurposed to tell the same story in the War Requiem, but using Wilfred Owen’s “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”, which ends tragically rather than optimistically. Abraham is sung by a tenor (Joshua Collier on this occasion); Isaac was written for soprano, but is often sung by countertenors now that they are increasingly common. Laurence Lesser drew attention to Ian Howell’s presence in the piece in his pre-concert address to the audience, saying one “had to make use” of such an artist when the chance arose. The vocalists were accompanied by the piano, played with clarity of tone and with appropriately dramatic and rhetorical flair by Tanya Blaich. Howell and Collier were well matched, both producing an unforced and natural, even conversational sound. Howell’s vocal production was free of any sense of strain or of that odd “otherworldly” character that can be off-putting in countertenors. Howell’s Isaac was young but not childlike, innocent but not ignorant. Coming to this piece knowing only its incarnation in the War Requiem, it was difficult at first to imagine how the almost childish end-rhyming of the Chester text would work in place of Owen’s poetry: “Make thee ready, my dear darling/For we must do a little thing. This woode do on thy back it bring.” But I needn’t have worried: Both vocalists gave close attention to the shaping of Britten’s text, and to the way the music cuts across the meaning of the words. Britten himself knew how to work with text and voices, and the text speaks simply and eloquently. The piece begins with a brief introduction in the voice of God, realized by the two vocalists singing together. In this performance, they went so far as to gather around the pianist with their backs to the audience to emphasize the separateness of the deity. The first two-thirds of the piece are dialogue between father and son; the vocalists chose not to directly address one another, and the music refuses to commit to one emotion or another; I found the initial experience distancing. But the logic behind the text and music became clear when the story took the turn that Owen disavowed. The harmony turns brighter and more diatonic, and there is a sense of deep but quiet joy as God shows Abraham the lamb (or “horned wether” as the text has it) that can stand in for Isaac. It is not a personal happiness, but something deeper, a sense of of events coming together as they were meant to. The final, traditional cadence on “Amen” was a balm, and arrived with quiet inevitability.
Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro is a ravishing short piece for string quartet with added flute, clarinet and harp. The personnel assembled on stage was a reminder of just what an embarrassment of riches First Monday concerts can provide; in addition to the harpist Zhou, we had Paula Robeson on flute, Stoltzman on clarinet, and a quartet made up of Donald Weilerstein, David McCarroll, Dimitri Murrath and Laurence Lesser. I am no expert on the harp, but Zhou’s tone struck me as especially deep and fully-formed; in Zhou’s hands the harp transcended its decorative qualities, and was instead a full-throated participant, to the point of dominating the other instruments. The ensemble often deferred to her, although Stolzman and Weilerstein produced an astringent tone giving Ravel’s wittier moments a bite and dash of unexpected color. I looked forward to the cadenza of Allegro to hear Zhou on her own; what I heard of it was wonderful, but it was marred by the ringing, seven times, of a phone immediately behind me, a ring tone whose gamut and timbre were distressingly close to that of the music being played. A harsh glance back turned up a row of poker-faces behind me—no one confessed to owning the phone, and so it went on and on until finally dumping the caller to voice mail.
Quintets with solo instrument, such as the Brahms Clarinet Quintet pose a cultural issue for the players. An established quartet has its own way of doing things, which likely does not include the clarinetist, so the piece may be dominated by the strings. However, if the quintet is something of a pick-up group, as on Monday, the clarinetist may well set the tone of the performance, which in this case, was unusual, even perverse. Stoltzman has well-known quirks—his expressive use of vibrato, his willingness to harden or soften his tone beyond what is considered typical. He is a divisive figure among clarinetists, and if the direction of this performance can be laid at his feet, he will remain so. The first movement moved along at brisk walking pace, but with occasional big swells of rubato, large enough that not all the performers were all at the same point in the swells at the same time. There was an especially wide range of dynamic, especially at the quiet end, as the clarinet frequently was completely submerged below the strings whenever its line was no longer primary. This did some damage to the continuity of the first movement, where the weaving of the clarinet into and out of the texture depends on hearing its harmonic as well as its melodic contributions. The ensemble seemed to be working things out in that movement as well—some alarming slides in the violin in the exposition evened out the second time through, and by the recapitulation the initial material had almost settled down. The second movement was played with a strong rhythmic pulse and no desire to indulge in nostalgia or operatics. The clarinet’s vocal arabesques were often tossed off so rapidly as to become mere ornaments, and on a few occasions ran past the accompanying strings. It was a reading of extremes, and of a kind of violence. It distorted the music in the first two movements, but it began to make a kind of sense in the final two. The third movement scherzo was unexpectedly explosive in its climaxes, and some of the odder interpretive choices fit better in the variation structure of the last movement, where the climate changes so quickly from moment to moment. This is late Brahms that sounded a bit mercurial. The quartet played with an open sound—at its best, each note and line was distinct from the others, a contrapuntal texture that had a challenging, even academic, quality to it. But there were certainly moments where the music suddenly melted and warmed, although it quickly resumed its serious work. Weilerstein seemed to be more in league with Stolzman than the others, both in his navigation of the more surprising changes in tempo and in a certain acerbic quality that came through in his lead playing. By the time the last notes sounded I felt I had been in a laboratory, a place of experimentation, which left my ears more open to the possibilities in the piece—but the performance itself was a scrapbook of ideas, not the full realization of any set of them.