The Portland Chamber Music Festival wrapped up for this year on Saturday with its usual pleasantly eclectic blend of old and new, and in this case with one intriguingly non-standard ensemble supplementing the conventional groupings. Mozart’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat Major, K. 493 opened.
The history of his two piano quartets, among the first of their kind (possible predecessors are quartets by Johann Schobert, F.X. Dušek and Emanuel Förster), is fraught with commercial frustration. It turns out the public wasn’t enthusiastic for keyboard chamber music for ensembles bigger than a trio, especially employing the more advanced techniques Mozart used—he was mostly busy on piano concertos at the time. Although a few composers tried it out in the two decades after Mozart’s second quartet was published in 1785, it really wasn’t until Schumann (who of course also invented the piano quintet) that this format took off.
The quartet is not really concerto-like in that its piano part does not entirely dominate the strings (though it is in the typical three movements of a concerto). However, the musical argument, especially of the first movement, is more densely reasoned, using a motive derived from an ornamental turn to drive the development (and recurs in the slow movement as well—though one would expect turns in such a setting). As performed by Henry Kramer, piano, with Harumi Rhodes, violin, Carol Rodland, viola, and Brant Taylor, cello, it was vigorous, dramatic and well-shaped by dynamic structure, though there were some problems of sonic balance as Kramer could get too aggressive and Rhodes often failed to project adequately. The slow movement also revealed felicities of dynamic phrase shaping, with delicacy and poise in the execution, though we wish Kramer could control his body English—it’s quite distracting in an ensemble piece. The finale is essentially lighthearted with occasional intimations of darkness. The writing here is indeed more concerto-like, with lovely and sprightly solo licks for the piano, which Kramer, along with the rest, carried off attentively and with appropriate élan.
The first half closed with Self Destruct by Jeremy Flower, written in 2008 for the interesting grouping of electronics (the composer), viola (Dov Scheindlin), two cellos (Susannah Chapman and Taylor), marimba (Matthew Gold) and piano (Kramer). Unlike Mozart, the particularities of whose life are usually hard to detect in his work, Flower wears his life on his sleeve, or at least his pen: this piece, he observed both in his written program note and his onstage introduction, depicted his distraught mental state as he struggled to get the composition done on time for its commissioner (many of us have been there and can empathize). In two movements titled “Open Stress Wound” and “Implode,” it is not quite as easy to read the stress as Flower implied, but in the alternations of single lines of strings blended with electronics and then opening out into full ensemble sonorities, one can sense the idea of constricted blood vessels and spurts of creative energy. The idiom Flowers uses is something that doesn’t often hit the classical concert stage hereabouts, a kind of new-agey pulse overlaid with polytonality, creating a gently jazzy backbeat to homophonic strings. The second movement featured further string-electronics duets noodling anxiously against a kind of walking beat (one thought of Ives’s “street beat”). There were some lovely more conventionally melodic passages for viola, charmingly wrought by Scheindlin, and an interesting one for piano against wailing string harmonics. It ended morendo in the strings against a barely perceptible marimba. It presents an engaging surface, which may invite listeners to check it out again to see how much juice is actually in it.
Dvořák’s String Sextet in A Major, op. 48 is, surprisingly, something of a rarity: PCMF presented it in 2010 and an augmented Borromeo Quartet played it in 2013, but BMInt records do not show another performance in its coverage zone since its founding in 2009. It is delightfully full of the composer’s signature tunefulness without the annoying prolixity of much of his early writing. Katherine Fong and Jennifer Elowitch, violins, with Scheindlin, Rodland, Taylor and Chapman, sounded smooth and mellow in the first movement, blending string sonority with no loss of individual lines. The dumka slow movement kept moving at a graceful gait, with moments of soulful pathos. The furiant scherzo was appropriately brisk and playful in the fast sections and gently swaying in the contrasting ones. The variations finale (OK, so this constitutes the final finale of the festival) saw Scheindlin eloquent in the theme statement, with similar praise for Taylor and Fong in the variations featuring their instruments, with the latter leading the only seriously up-tempo one to bring the work, the evening, and this year’s festival to a festive conclusion.