in: Reviews

February 8, 2016

Brahms Follows Vanishing Act

by

Photographer Roman Vishniac (Mara Vishniac Kohn photo)

Photographer Roman Vishniac (Mara Vishniac Kohn photo)

“Of Love and Remembrance,” a “valentine” to a vanished world, made for somewhat strange misalliances in Mistral’s outing at the auditorium of Temple Ohabei Shalom, Brookline Saturday, where, as is her wont, Artistic Director Julie Scolnik assembled a well-shaken and stirred brew to stimulate a roster of really fine local freelancers—ten of them this time.

The melancholic first half opened in A Vanished World for flute, viola, and harp by the late David Stock (1939 – 2015), a work inspired by Ramon Vishniac’s eponymous coffee table book from 1983. His moving photographs of impoverished Jews in Russian ghettos in the 1930s, commissioned to bring attention to the plight of this soon to be extinguished cohort, have been faulted for ignoring the wealthy and middleclass Jews of Europe. Their world would have included modern art and compositions of Korngold, Weil, Mahler, Schoenberg, and their ilk, not to mention Beethoven and Mendelssohn. Therefore, Vishniac’s portrayal and Stock’s reaction capture a narrow snapshot, albeit a harrowing one, of a much more complex vanished world. Certainly suitable as compelling background music for an earnest Holocaust documentary, the piece struggled to stand on its own. This somewhat manipulative nostalgic reflection on a lost culture alternated cantorial and klezmer snippets such as “Hatikva,” “Eliyahu Hanavie” and Jewish folk tunes with agitato forebodings… over and over again. Despite mournful arias from Julie Scolnik’s flute, songful outpourings from Dmitri Murrath’s viola and impeccable support from Ina Zdorovetchi’s harp, the music passed rather too un-challengingly for a meditation on a historic loss.

Wunderkind Erich Korngold’s career went downhill after the signal success of his mammoth 1920 opera Die Tote Stadt, which swept the world at its premiere when the composer was but 23. “Gluck das mir verblieb,” (Marietta’s Lied), the show’s hit tune, exists in the opera as a duet between the dancer Marietta and the grieving widower Paul; it was perhaps most famously recorded by Lotte Lehmann and Richard Tauber. One cannot fail to be touched by Tauber’s entrance [entire duet here]. Lustrous mezzo-soprano Krista River soared with a marvelously long legato line and unforced power over the accompaniment of a chamber reduction credited to Joseph Scheer. Her valentine to us, gorgeous as it was, nevertheless needed more of the schmaltziness that the accompanying strings slathered on the Brahms that followed later in the program. Rivers might also have enjoyed some chemistry with a virile duet partner. Are there any Taubers in Scolnik’s Rolodex?

We all found The Diary of a Young Girl terribly saddening when we read it in high school—not because of the quality of the prose, but rather from what we knew had become of that perfectly average upper middleclass teenager. At least 18 similarly moved composers have set Anne Frank’s diary entries, and more will surely follow since the volume has entered the public domain. Composer Michael Cohen (1939-) and librettist Enid Futterman have made something of a theater piece of Anne’s words in I Remember for flute, cello, mezzo-soprano and harp. The company put it across with a seriousness of purpose that perhaps exceeded the requirements of this pleasant portrait of normalcy and how bad things can happen to good people. River achieved a more engaging simplicity in the depiction of Anne than others might find in the appealing but unpoetic lyric flow. Only in a single extended example of the “I remember…” numbers did she divine something memorably dramatic. Folk material and echoes of nature accompanied such lines as “My mother likes me” to no particular effect. Had Cohen intended to reinforce the ordinariness of the diary musings? Why did he foreshadow virtually none of Anne’s terrors?

In the accompaniments, Scolnik spun an especially plaintive bass flute solo while cellist Muller-Szeraws joined her in spiritual assignations; harpist Ina Zdorovetchi’s proved a sensitive go-between. A simple V-I cadence brought unexpected closure. There was absolutely nothing not to like about this gentle cantata on the musings of a departed adolescent—that’s precisely what was wrong with it.

The second half, by contrast, comprised a single, reassuringly exalting work. Brahms String Sextet in B-flat Major Op. 16, the master’s first of two forays in this form, got a comfortable, collegial reading. Since string sextets don’t exist as permanent performing groups, one doesn’t expect the precision of intercourse one gets from established string quartet, and the composer’s provision of parts for two violas and two cellos makes for textures than can seem clotted, though often delicious—like the most appetizing Devonshire cream.

There are no secondary parts in this work. Brahms gave great solos to every line, and on this occasion, each player emerged from the texture with great licks. The viola of Dimitri Murrath and the cello of Muller-Szeraws spoke with especial gladness and complexity of spirit. Altogether, though, the ensemble’s generosity of spirit and tone, including much rubato and portamento, invited us all in.

Because of carpeted floors and acoustical treatment on the low ceiling, the hall lacked any inherent warmth. Thus it came as a relief to hear sextet’s infectious juiciness through the prism of Antonio Oliart’s subtly enhancing reverberant reinforcement. If Mistral plans to return here, they should also bring risers and better lighting.

The old-fashioned yearning and pleading style worked perfectly for Brahms. In the Andante the noble theme varied and developed with tremendous depth, surging and releasing its charge; it suggested to more than one listener that Brahms, much more than most contemporary composers, knew how to make us very sad. The Scherzo in a lilting three was all smiles—Brahms at his beeriest. The final accelerando in the last movement leapt off the stage as the crowd roared.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.

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