The 24th season of the Portland Chamber Music Festival opened Thursday with an eclectic mix whose musical center of gravity fell decisively to the rear end, but whose less bulky top afforded no little delight.
Mozart’s Quintet in E-flat Major for horn and strings, K. 407 (1783) was written for Ignatz Leutgeb, for whom the composer also wrote all his horn concerti. One wouldn’t likely assess this as one of Mozart’s major late works but it affords ample range for virtuosity, high-stepping “wicked hahd” jollity in the finale, and crooning lyricism in the slow movement (there is no minuet). Oddly scored for one violin (Jennifer Elowitch), two violas (Jessica Meyer and Melissa Reardon) and cello (Brant Taylor), the writing, as observed in Willard Hertz’s astute program note, when not dominated by the horn (Patrick Pridemore), features interplay between horn and violin, with the lower strings in supporting roles (except for a lively contrapuntal passage in the finale. Owing to a critical synaptic lapse we arrived too late for the first movement; but the remainder found the players in pure tone and elegant expression. Pridemore conveyed a finely burnished sound and springy agility. There was, however, considerable imbalance in sonic forces, inherent in the scoring, that the ensemble seemed overly concerned to undo.
The tradition of the composer-performer (or perhaps vice versa) has seen a commendable revival in this century after a notable falling-off during the academically-dominated art-music culture of the mid-to-late 20th century. In introducing her brief But Not Until for viola and cello (2014) Jessica Meyer allowed as how she had lapsed from composition for the first ten years of her performing career, but felt called back to it as a form of musical self-completion. She also stressed the tendency of her music to wrangle with interpersonal relationships (with commendable reticence about what those might be).
The title of this work, one of her first for more than one instrument, comes from a David Foster Wallace epigram: “The truth will set you free. But not until it is done with you.” The piece’s main idea builds from and returns to a one-pitch drone, with many written portamenti, becoming more complex analogously to variations. Meyer has been generous in supplying much lyrical material for the cello’s upper range which Taylor sympathetically voiced. There is a contrasting rapid section and an evocation of a Baroque walking bass figure, seemingly built on the same material as the opening, before returning to that opening for a tidy close. While once again we got no sense of great existential anguish from the work, its tight structuring and congenial materials and methods left a favorable impression. The performances by Meyer and Taylor were, both evidently and self-evidently, definitive.
The PCMF players saved the heavy lifting for the end, in the form of Ernő Dohnány’s 1937 Sextet for clarinet, horn, string troops and piano. If the definition of a masterpiece is something that yields new insights and delights on each new encounter, then this fills the bill. Unlike his slightly younger contemporaries Bartók and Kodály, Dohnány forwent overt Hungarian nationalism and avant-garde harmonic, rhythmic and technical experiments, preferring to mine, with increasing sophistication, the seam of late-Romantic functional tonality. In this he was far from alone; pianist Henry Kramer seemed surprised, in introducing the piece, that Dohnányi should slog on “even after Schoenberg”—has he not heard of Rachmaninoff? However, as this sextet makes clear, Dohnányi was not oblivious to musical (or any other) developments around him. Moreover, it’s one of those rare works that created a new instrumental genre, albeit not one with a terribly rich repertoire so far.
Kramer, with colleagues Anna Lim, violin; Reardon, Trevor Handy, cello; Benjamin Fingland, clarinet; and Pridemore, took the Sextet’s opening allegro appassinato in a more mysterious than heroic vein, a perfectly justifiable approach, morphing into a broadly Brahmsian sweep with lavishly piquant chord changes and poignant major-minor shifts. The “intermezzo,” actually the slow movement, continues the Schubertian major-minor Magic until interrupted by a terrifying dark march that wouldn’t be out of place in a John Williams score. The ensemble had this moment nailed. The putative scherzo actually does send more like a Brahms intermezzo, and in it Fingland distinguished himself with glowing elegance and eloquence, while the ensemble made much of Dohnány’s woozy hat tip to Viennese Gemütlichkeit. After a feint reprise of the opening misterioso motif, the impish, slightly jazzy finale followed with the pause, with many linkages to prior movements, now including a pungent satire of Viennese waltz suggesting that Dohnányi had heard a bar or two of Weill. The performance was engaging and communicative, with impeccable technique and togetherness, but we missed the edge and punch that others have bright to this brilliant movement.
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.