Six performers on a chamber music stage almost always produce an impressive noise, and so it was at the Community Music Center of Boston on May 29th for “Spectacular Sextets,” the penultimate concert on its John Kleshinski Concert Series. An ad hoc array of players including CMCB faculty Neil Godwin, horn and Nicole Parks, violin, along with clarinetist Juliet Lai, violist Lilit Muradyan, cellist Sam Ou, and pianist Pei-Yeh Tsai, undertook two works by Eastern European composers for that unusual ensemble, namely the Sextet by Krzysztof Penderecki and the Sextet in C Major, op. 37, by Ernő (or, if you prefer, Ernst von) Dohnányi.
Before getting on with our description, though, a full-disclosure caution is advisable: your correspondent maintains a minor but formal connection to CMCB, being a member of its corporation (though not its board of directors). You may therefore adjust your expectations for our critical detachment accordingly.
Apart from a piece called Adyegaya by the Russian Mikhail Fabianovich Gnesin, we could find no references to a work for this particular instrumental combination apart from the Dohnányi and the Penderecki, so we will take it as a working hypothesis that the latter got the idea for this scoring from the Hungarian’s, which remains one of his most popular chamber works. At the same time the Penderecki, dating from 2000, has become one of that composer’s most popular and well-regarded chamber works, of which it must be admitted there aren’t many. Dating from 2000, it is couched in Penderecki’s “return to tradition” idiom (always a shock to those of us of an age to remember him as an avatar of the avant garde in the 1960s) and comprises two substantial movements, the first an Allegro moderato focusing on a small number of motivic fragments, one that opens the work with an insistent piano note, another that is more scalar and invokes—as quite a bit of Penderecki’s more recent music does—the spirit of Shostakovich, specifically the First Symphony; a final principal motif involves interlocking major and minor seconds, reminiscent of Bartók, which gets much more play in the second movement. Much of the writing in this movement involves the players in solo roles (as does the Shostakovich), giving each a moment in the sun, and for which each delivered effectively (one intriguing thing amid all the Shostakovich references is that the clarinet part seems much more Stravinskyan). There are not many passages in the movement that slacken the pace—one brief one in the middle is the only one we noted—and, whether owing to the score or the performers, there was not a lot of dynamic contrast. The performance was rhythmically incisive, if not always subtle. Tsai was solid and often impressive in Penderecki’s rhythmically tricky passagework.
The second movement, by far the longer, is a soulful lament marked Larghetto (quite a lot of this in Penderecki as well, not just in his more recent work), which begins with the horn offstage, lending its lines a haunting, shadowy effect (quite well executed by Godwin). As noted, the melodic content of this movement is built significantly out of the intertwining seconds adumbrated in the first movement. The music alternates between the sorrowful and the agitated, with a surprising passage near the end in mock folk-style such as one finds in Mahler. Although there are many lovely and arresting passages in this movement, we think Penderecki could have edited this part more aggressively with no loss of emotional power. The performances in this movement were more noticeably variable than in the opening: Lai produced a lovely sound in the lower and middle ranges but was not as effective in the upper; the strings, while not exactly off intonation, sometimes did not achieve consensus over where the exact center of a pitch was, though individually (we note Ou particularly) they were often very fine indeed.
With only a slight concession to length, by including the Gnesin this group could have exhausted the repertoire for their ensemble. Lacking that, they concluded with Dohnányi’s wonderful sextet. Dohnányi is less underappreciated now than he had been for a long time, but this just slightly older friend and colleague of Bartók and Kodály provides a strong representation of what music in the 20th century might have been like if it hadn’t been so rudely upended by Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Beginning as a follower of Brahms, Dohnányi developed a personal chromaticism that is simultaneously centered and on edge, less predictable than Strauss but not nearly as vertiginous as, say, Reger. Despite the promise of a cheerful C major tonality, and a wonderfully heroic opening horn theme, the opening movement is dark and intense, with key roles played by a melodic tritone and a downward-thrusting minor second. The playing, in this more ensemble-intensive music, was sonorous, not as dynamically varied as it could have been, with some of the string issues mentioned earlier. The second movement, marked “intermezzo,” is in fact in a slow tempo, continuing the sinuous alternations of major and minor, with a solemn march in place of a trio. The actual scherzo is more like a Brahmsian intermezzo, with a lovely tune for the clarinet (well played by Lai) with a bit of Hungarian paprika. It leads without pause (after a reference to the first movement) to a surprisingly raucous and racy finale with touches of jazziness while ever mindful of the lost world of Mitteleuropa (it was written in 1935). It’s got an ear-wormy infectious tune, and is in a more or less rondo form with the “compositionally correct” re-entry of the opening movement’s motifs before the close, an edgily fond farewell to All That (after an uneasy modus vivendi with the pro-Nazi government that took over Hungary, Dohnányi left his country for the US in 1944, where he died in 1960, more or less forgotten like his Viennese colleague Zemlinsky). The performance here was robust, with a few moments where the giddiness of it all threatened the ensemble, but it all came out right in the end. Kudos to Godwin, who superintended and produced the imaginative program.