in: Reviews

August 12, 2014

When They Were Good, They Were Very….

by

John Klibonoff (file photo)

John Klibonoff (file photo)

Pianist Jon Klibonoff joined the Amernet String Quartet at Maverick Concerts on Sunday for a program of music by European composers who came to America. Most of the playing was quite good and so was some of the music, but Korngold’s Piano Quintet proved a wasted half-hour.

It’s difficult to do programs devoted to Richard Strauss (for the 150th anniversary of his birth) in a chamber series. Chamber music wasn’t Strauss’s forte, and he didn’t write any significant chamber works after his Violin Sonata of 1888. Instead, Maverick’s Music Director Alexander Platt has managed to put together programs by Strauss’s contemporaries which he calls “The World of Richard Strauss,” and some of them have been quite worthwhile. Unfortunately, the latest, on Sunday, had a couple of significant misfires.

Things started out surprisingly well, with Mahler’s one-movement Piano Quartet in A Minor. He wrote it when he was only 16, intending to compose a full four-movement work, but got no further than the opening measures of the second movement. I’ve heard the single movement before and never felt it was very significant. But Jon Klibonoff and members of the Amernet String Quartet gave it a vigorous, fervent performance which brought the music to life in a way I had not experienced before. The pianist played full out but never drowned out the strings. It was a real treat.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the performance of Dvořák’s “American” Quartet (in F Major, Op. 96) which followed. The quartet played with warm sound and good balance, but I didn’t think their style suited the music well. It was too slick, not attentive to the romance in the music, and occasionally marred by shrill sound from first violinist Misha Vitenson, a problem I do not remember from previous performances by this group.

Amernet String Quartet (file photo)

Amernet String Quartet (file photo)

After intermission, Klibonoff gave us the briefest and most successful music of the afternoon, Schoenberg’s Six Little Pieces, Op. 19. Schoenberg famously said, “My music is not modern, it is merely badly played.” Listening to early Schoenberg recordings, even by his friends, often explains that quote. Now that Schoenberg has been absorbed into the consciousness of professional musicians, though, we sometimes get to hear performances like Klibonoff’s, played with such lyricism and comprehension that the music sounded downright beautiful. Too bad the set is so short but at least we had a few minutes of magic.

I heard more of interest in the Schoenberg than in ten times the amount of notes from Erich Wolfgang Korngold. His Piano Quintet in E Major, Op. 15, was written in 1921, long before Korngold came to America and “went Hollywood.” It shows that he was writing movie music before he encountered movies. The three long movements have occasional moments of interest when they surprisingly detour into modernism and away from tonality. Otherwise, they sounded like generic romantic gestures stitched together rather than developed and running on far beyond their appropriate length. Perhaps a tongue-in-cheek approach from the performers might have made the music more palatable, but these players were too honorable for that and they took it completely seriously. The audience seemed to like the music very much more than I did.

Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.

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