in: Reviews

May 26, 2016

Winsor Brings Mojo to Brahms

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Engraved device from a letter of Brahms (courtesy Harvard Musical Association)

Engraved device from a letter of Brahms (courtesy Harvard Musical Association)

Peggy Pearson’s Winsor Music wrestled with some deep thoughts, chiefly those of Johannes Brahms, and some contemplations on the lives of saints. A packed St. Paul’s Church in Brookline (quite impressive for a Tuesday) constituted a tribute not only to the programming, but also to the formidable resources Pearson brought to bear. These consisted of herself, of course, on oboe, Gabriela Diaz and Saúl Bitran, violins, James Buswell, viola, Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello, Anthony D’Amico, bass, and George Li, piano.

“…and the last will be first,” as Matthew and the other synoptic evangelists put it; so it was on this program, which began with selections from Brahms’s final works, the 11 chorale preludes, op. 122 (the manuscripts were found in his desk at the time of his death in 1897, and were published only in 1902). These were written, of course, for organ, but Pearson transcribed numbers 4 (“Herzlich tut mich erfreuen”), 8 {“Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen”) and 11 (the second setting in this series of “O Welt, ich muss dich lassen”) for oboe, string trio and bass. Brahms began work on the set (the ordering is not from any indication by the composer, though it is widely believed that no. 11 was the last composed) after learning of the death of Clara Schumann, and it is probable that he knew as he was writing them that he was himself dying (cancer—all those cigars!). Consequently, it is frequently supposed that these were his own farewell to life, though there is considerable variety in the tone of the chorale texts he chose. No. 8 is probably the most popular of the set, on Pretorius’s famous Christmas tune, though it is the one number in which the tune is occulted, the memorable aspect of the prelude being the gentle and lovely counter-melody Brahms twines like vines around the inner voices where the melody resides. No. 11 sets each line of the text/tune—which most editions print as headings to the purely instrumental preludes—in a series of forthright statements and fainter echoes. In their performances of the three preludes, the ensemble displayed a plummy, mellow sonority in the first, an aching longing in the second, and blissful acceptance in the echoes of the third (couldn’t detect much rage here, pace Matthew Guerrieri). Pearson’s scoring, as it happened, favored the viola, which Buswell (who is, of course, “normally” one of America’s leading violinists) played with silken soulfulness.

The (literal) centerpiece of the first half of the program was the premiere of Dalla Legenda aurea, which Winsor commissioned from Portuguese composer Andreia Pinto-Correia. Ms. Pinto-Correia’s work is actually a step removed from the Medieval bestseller by Jacobus de Voragine now generally called The Golden Legend, a work of hagiography originally titled Legenda sanctorum. The Catholic Church long ago backed away from much of the fanciful pseudo-biographies of saints contained in the Legenda, and even determined that some of the people discussed probably never existed. In its day, however, it was highly influential, so much so that in the mid-15th century Piero della Francesca executed an elaborate set of frescoes (considered by many to be his greatest work) on commission from the Bacci family for the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo in Tuscany, called The History of the True Cross. It is these frescoes, rather than the book, that inspired Pinto-Correia’s piece. Incidentally, none of these have anything to do with Arthur Sullivan’s cantata The Golden Legend, which was based on a Longfellow poem that borrowed Voragine’s title but used a completely different story. Although the composer was present to describe the context of her work, there were no printed program notes and she did not project well enough (especially for those sitting to the sides of the stage) to make this retelling superfluous.

Pinto-Correia, currently a teaching fellow at NEC, has lived in the US for a number of years and has won commissions from many American and European organizations (full disclosure: she was commissioned for a work by Dinosaur Annex, of which I am a director). She has, in the past, sought to embrace her national identity (which she says many Portuguese composers seek not to do). That said, there seems to be very little of that in her Legenda aurea, whose 10 brief attached sections sounded like they owed a great deal to the Spectralists and their obsession with the timbres of isolated notes; the tempi were mostly moderate-to-slow, there were very few passages that registered as lyrically melodic (pretty much all of them for the oboe), and much of the sound emphasized isolated pizzicato, with occasional rhythmic bursts. There was nothing at all pictorial in the writing; indeed, the colors and affect of most of the sections were hard to distinguish from one another—for sure there was nothing Handelian in the section called “Visit of Queen Sheba to King Solomon”! When it was over, it was hard to know why. It must be for others, therefore, to limn this work’s virtues; to these ears, nothing much gelled. The performance, by Pearson, Diaz, Buswell and Popper-Keizer, sounded as technically secure as one would expect from these top players.

The first half closed with another chorale prelude, this time Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland by J.S. Bach, which Pearson scored for the Legenda aurea ensemble, that is to say, like the Brahms but without the bass, a shrewd acknowledgment of the differences between a Baroque and Romantic organ sonority. It’s not quite clear just why this work was selected for this particular spot on the program—a balm to us heathens after a bout of grappling with Spectralism? Whatever the reason, the execution this time seemed to lack mojo, despite Pearson’s gorgeous and sensuous tone.

The second half of the program was given back to Brahms, specifically his Piano Quintet in F Minor, op. 34. Pearson’s oral program notes emphasized the struggle the composer had to bring this unquestioned masterpiece to its final form, which is a more-than-twice-told tale always worth another listen to show how hard it is to make something seem effortless. Another interesting take-away from the quintet’s history is that it was not conceived as an answer or commentary on the quintet by Robert Schumann, Brahms’s mentor, who essentially invented the piano quintet in the modern sense; up till then, the ensemble was mostly used as a reduction medium for orchestral music.

One follows the blossoming career of pianist George Li with great and increasing interest. Having emerged from his child-prodigy chrysalis (one wonders what former Wunderkind Buswell might tell him about that transition), he is deepening both in expressive output and in the sociability of his chamber playing. On this occasion, without any retrenchment in fervor in the many stormy passages of this quintet, he kept his part in balance with the strings as a full team player, to the advantage of the work and the audience. Considering the ad hoc and all-star quality of the ensemble, the unanimity and directedness of the performance was impressive to behold. The players were especially effective in shaping the dynamic trajectory of each phrase without losing the overall architecture and momentum of the piece. Just one example: the return of the ornamented main tune in the second movement was a marvel of delicacy. The alternation of misterioso and red-blooded robustness in the scherzo’s outer sections was delightful, while Popper-Keizer’s solo in the trio section lent it a palpable edginess. In the finale, the main statement of the theme took a few seconds to settle into its groove, but once there it held admirably for the big climaxes; the coda’s build-up and feral peroration were perfectly judged.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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