The Portland Chamber Music Festival, held each August, has a lifespan shorter than that of a housefly, but crams much enlightening and delightful music making into its fortnightly existence. This year’s outing began on August 13th, and we caught the Saturday night concert at its usual venue, in Hannaford Hall within the Abromson Center at the Portland campus of the University of Southern Maine (sorry for that mouthful). Artistic Director Jennifer Elowitch concocted, for this evening, a fine mix of Russian, American and French music for trio, quartet, and quintet, with one semi-premiere between two stalwart 19th-century works.
For its very substantial opener, a quintet comprising Kristin Lee and Elowitch, violins, David Panner, viola, and Claire Bryant and Brant Taylor, cellos, brought impeccable technique and expressive force to Alexander Glazunov’s relatively seldom-heard String Quintet in A Major, Op. 39. Glazunov (1865-1936, thus a contemporary of Nielsen, Sibelius and Strauss) is known today for a handful of compositions (the ballet Raymonda, the violin concerto, and the delightful late saxophone concerto) but mostly as his country’s most prominent pedagogue of the era, counting Prokofiev and Shostakovich among his students, while he himself was trained as a teenage prodigy by Rimsky-Korsakov. His conservative, Western-leaning style, with its technical prowess inherited from Tchaikovsky, would have placed him alongside Medtner and Rubinstein, were his aesthetic not tinged with, though never overwhelmed by, the nationalistic fervor of the Mighty Handful. His aversion to modernism caused him to fall out of favor even before his death (which occurred some seven years after he unofficially emigrated from the Soviet Union), but it helped him keep hold of his position at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where after the Russian Revolution he was able to run interference on behalf of his students; Shostakovich indeed credited Glazunov with keeping him from starvation.
The Quintet, dating from the palmier days of 1891-2, came at the end of a compositional crisis, a couple of years where, after his brilliant, start, Glazunov produced little. The first three movements are sturdy and well-constructed in a thoroughgoing Western style (the scherzo is a brilliant stroke, with its principal section dominated by pizzicato in the upper strings, which the cellos pick up and convert to an accompaniment figure for the trio). Only in the finale is there an overtly Russian sound, with a foursquare galumphing main tune and a secondary lyrical one in which Glazunov channels Borodin. The performance by this ensemble was of the highest order. It began with Panner’s luscious, liquid sound, picked up by Bryant in a similarly emotive, lyrical vein, and then reinforced by Lee’s somewhat thinner timbre. The movement is strongly linear and melodic (indeed, there are some interesting chord changes, but only at the end), and the players demonstrated an utter mastery of the conversational style of chamber music. The scherzo, as noted, is a delightful exercise in texture, though Elowitch produced a plummy lyrical line in a solo transitioning from the trio back to the principal section. The slow movement gave Taylor his chance to shine, which he did with a fine plaintive rendering, with many musical sighs, of the principal theme. The finale was another fine exhibition of the full ensemble’s interaction, culminating in a galloping race to the end. These interactions and perfectly tossed threads of musical discourse demonstrate how exhilarating chamber music is when done right.
The first half closed with a new work, the premiere of the piano trio version (the original, from 2011, was for flute, cello and piano) of Mood Sequences by David Crumb, which was the winner of this year’s PCMF composition contest. Crumb, 52, teaches at the University of Oregon, and gave a brief talk before the performance. He is not at all diffident about mentioning that he is the son of the well-known George Crumb, but he has staked out very independent musical territory in his work, eschewing his father’s mystical and recondite avant-gardism for a style, sometimes tonal and sometimes not, that is more deliberately intelligible (he uses the term “comprehensible” but we won’t put such a fine point on it). In five short movements (“Soulful,” “Manic,” “Meditative,” “Ecstatic” and “Reprise”), Mood Sequences delivers exactly what it says on the package. It begins with a faintly heard theme in the violin (Lee), oscillating on a minor third above and below its starting point, and exfoliating into a modal/pentatonic melody that informs all the movements. The violin in this movement has only the lightest of single-line accompaniment in the piano (Max Levinson), and no cello. The delicacy is shattered in the next movement, opening powerfully and maintaining a strong rhythmic force throughout, while the piano part features clusters recalling Ives (the program note, presumably by the composer, speaks about stylistic cues from Bartók, but we found little of him here). The cello (Bryant) parallels the gruff demeanor of the violin. The third movement begins with a long sustained note in the cello, with either no or very narrow vibrato, and promotes an air of icy stasis, with delicate piano figurations. The “Ecstatic” fourth movement is bright and crystalline, with strings often in parallel accompanied by blocky chords in the piano that also, with their pentatonic underpinnings, invoke the Ives of the Concord Sonata before ending with the cello sustain that opened the third movement. The finale is a literal repeat of the first, with the cello taking the melody. While the piece didn’t bowl us over as a masterpiece, it is worth repeat hearings to suss out the many details lurking within. The performances were fully communicative and had the air of assurance; we hope the composer was pleased with the outcome.
The concluding item of the evening was the Piano Quartet No. 1 in C Minor by Gabriel Fauré. Written mostly from 1876-79, with the finale revised in 1883, it was only Fauré’s second work of chamber music, after his first violin sonata. More conventional harmonically and structurally than his mid-career second quartet (and owing a debt to Schumann, “with French characteristics”), this one nevertheless is a significant work that displays some nice touches of modality, remote modulations and decorative chord changes, and conveys powerful emotion powerfully controlled. The last point is significant in regard to the turmoil in Fauré’s life at the time this work was written—engagement gone sour, love life in tatters, that sort of thing.
The ensemble assembled for this performance consisted of Levinson; Frank Huang, concertmaster-elect of the New York Philharmonic, violin; Christine Grossman, viola, and Taylor. They opened forcefully, and reveled in every little modal nuance (Huang’s face lit up every time). The playing throughout was emotionally forthcoming, without overt shows of virtuosity, and displayed great refinement and elegance, which is not the same thing as playing softly. The brief scherzo, which like the Glazunov, but not to the same degree, featured pizzicato, was a charmer: Levinson kept the line bright and flowing, while the trio was smooth as glass. The slow movement, the most emotionally fraught of the four, revealed beautifully calculated phrasing and empathetic ensemble unity. Huang brought out every throttled sob and Levinson ranged dreamily over the Schumannesque piano part. The finale, over which the composer labored mightily, is in truth something of a letdown. It is musically less striking than the other movements, and it opens a mite weakly—this is Fauré’s miscalculation, not the players’, though they could have been tauter in its execution to compensate. These minor concerns, however, did not dull the overall effect of the performance, which was sure-footed and communicative.