The third of the four concerts of the Portland Chamber Music Festival got going Thursday with No. 12 of the op. 1 set of trio sonatas by Vivaldi for two violins and continuo. This particular one is formally distinct, as it is really a set of variations on that most protean of musical sources, the 15th century Spanish or Portuguese tune “La Folía,” which by one account has been set, varied or otherwise used in at least 521 compositions, by composers (other than the prolific “anonymous”) ranging from Lully through Rachmaninoff and down to another composer on this evening’s program.
It is probably no longer necessary (as it would have been a generation ago) to point out that Vivaldi was no mere note-spinner, the fellow who wrote one concerto 500 times, but a composer of infinite variety, wit and depth, who fully justified the high regard in which J.S. Bach and others from the next generation held him. His variations sparkle and delight with a wide variety of moods, tempi and rhythms; they often veer far from the confines of the original tune in very proto-modern ways. The violins in this performance, Harumi Rhodes and Jennifer Elowitch, were light-footed and full of life and fire. The continuo was realized by Susannah Chapman, cello, whose line was nearly as complex as those of the violins, and made a bit intrusive by less-than-optimum volume control, and Peter Sykes on the harpsichord, whose elegant and restrained playing was too often obscured.
The first half concluded with Three Yiddish Dances, a 2010 composition for piano trio by David Ludwig, who has also, it turns out, written a piece based on “La Folía.” Ludwig’s music was new to these ears, but best to rack that up to not getting out enough. He represents the fourth generation of a remarkable family of musicians, from Adolph Busch through Rudolf Serkin and Peter Serkin (Ludwig’s uncle), and the first among them known primarily as a composer. In introducing his work from the stage, Ludwig noted that, although he himself was raised as a Quaker, by descent he is 87.5% Jewish, so his interest in the Ashkenazic musical heritage reflected in his piece was legitimately personal. His remarks cast some doubt on whether the musical language he employed in this trio is typical of his work; but a quick sampling from his website shows him to be an artist of wide-ranging expressive techniques that generally blend and cross-reference tonal and non-tonal idioms.
The first movement, “Crooked Dance” (tipsy dance is more or less what is implied) is dominated by emphatic rhythms (the principal motif is a 13-beat phrase) and percussive effects, not just on the piano (Henry Kramer), but by the actual percussion of that and the other instruments (Katherine Fong, violin, and Chapman). The ensemble gave it a brash and forward performance, just right. The slow movement, called “Slow Hora” (it turns out that “hora” isn’t a specific dance, but the generic word for dance), and is in triple meter. Ludwig uses the plucked piano strings to provide a charming cembalo effect, with evocative harmonics in the strings. The effect is like a sarabande, dignified and stately. The finale, “Bulgar,” is klezmer, of the familiar type, but with an interesting twist. Whereas one expects a standard klezmer rhythm of seven beats to the bar, divided into four and three, the Bulgarian type Ludwig used seems to divide the bar into three plus four. When questioned about this after the concert, he noted that he had actually written it in quintuple meter, but combining the bars into 3+2 and 2+3, etc., produces the effect of 3+4. This frenetic fast music, in which the piano right hand is very often given over to cluster chords, alternates with poignant slow episodes. It received a high-stepping, spirited performance.
The Piano Quartet in F Minor, M.7, of César-Auguste-Jean-Guillaume-Hubert Franck was the first work he completed after his conversion to Wagnerism, and in some respects is more giddily chromatic than his later works. It is also the work in which Franck first displayed his use of cyclical form, with a motif from the second subject of the first movement becoming an idée fixe for the whole composition. The PCMF ensemble performing it was Kramer, Rhodes, Fong, Dov Scheindlin, viola, and Brant Taylor, cello. In the opening movement, with its long introduction before the Allegro, the strings’ impassioned outburst is answered gently by the piano. Rhodes and Fong were on remarkably equal terms, owing both to Franck’s solicitude for the second violin and the players’ splendid coordination. Kramer was dark and mysterious in the allegro, and the ensemble build excellent momentum shaped by superior dynamic contrasts. In the slow movement Rhodes began tentatively and questioningly, with the players working up to passionate intensity in a well-paced and -calculated progression. Kramer provided a Chopinesque delicacy of touch. The finale (Franck must have figured that such earnest music can’t abide a scherzo) lurches on dark and turbulent seas—this ensemble’s take was even a bit rougher than some others—with a few shining rays premonitory of Debussy’s La mer giving a few seconds’ relief from the intensity, before the sudden ending of octaves announces that yes, by gum, we’ve gotten back to F. After 35 minutes of roiling chromaticism one might wish for a drop of Dramamine, but all in all it was a great ride.