Adding to its list of venues and performers, Historic Portsmouth Chamber Music, a part of the Portsmouth (NH) Athenaeum, presented members of the Boston-based string orchestra A Far Cry at The Dance Hall in Kittery, ME, on Sunday afternoon. The program’s three works contrasted the beauty and near-preternatural perfection of Mozart with the earthy, unpretentious humor of Beethoven, and Schoenberg’s challenges to convention. Yet all three disclosed ample moments of beauty thanks to the great skill of the six performers. The intimate landmarked hall, nearly full at around 180, sounded warm and present.
In an alteration to the printed program (prudent on a sultry August afternoon), violist Sarah Darling and cellist Jonathan Butler opened with an enticing appetizer, the Allegro first movement of Beethoven’s Duet with Two Obligatory [Pairs of] Eyeglasses, WoO 32. The unusual title alludes to the composer’s intention to perform the work with his aristocratic friend Baron Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanowecz, requiring both to wear eyeglasses to do so! Accordingly, the music was a conversation between friends. The proximity of the instruments’ ranges allowed for easy interweaving and equality of parts, and Butler and Darling were so much of one mind that inflections of tempo (including a comical pregnant pause or two) caused nary a discrepancy between them. Lyrical legato tunes alternated with chattering staccato passagework and witty pizzicati. Beethoven clearly admired and learned from Haydn’s gift for conveying humor via music, e.g., the false “repeat” of the opening of the development which quite soon devolves into unexpected broadly sustained chords which fade before a vigorous coda. Though resolutely poker-faced, the performers elicited chuckles from the audience in many places.
With its Apollonian symmetry of structure, richness of texture, and lyric grace, Mozart’s String Quintet No. 3 in C Major, K. 515, in the hands of the accomplished Jesse Irons and Jae Cosmos Lee, violins; Jason Fisher and Sarah Darling, violas; and Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello, provided a fine foil to the preceding piece. The composer relished the additional possibilities even a single additional instrument (viola) can give to the string quartet genre, inspiring him to add touches of polyphony and unusually adventuresome harmony in the many modulations of the first movement’s development section as well as exploring many different combinations of instruments. The performers responded with easy collegiality; melodies emerged naturally from accompaniments with no need for “spotlighting.” The second movement minuet is the one oddly proportioned movement, with a Trio nearly twice as long as its “main” part. But perhaps that quality, its somewhat brisk tempo, and its light-hearted mood indicate that it does double-duty as minuet and scherzo. A brief dialogue between Irons and the ensemble and another between Popper-Keizer and his fellows, came across with particular savor. The Andante third movement conjured an Elysian atmosphere; the blissful dialogue between the first viola (Fisher) and first violin (Irons) and the florid but never obtrusive tapestry of accompanying lines were enchanting. After such a wondrous display of so many aspects of Mozart’s genius in the preceding movements, the frolicsome finale made for a fine divertissement, though even here, if one cared to look beneath the beguiling surface, many further examples of supreme mastery could be discerned: unusual tonal peregrinations and numerous contrapuntal devices such as inversion of the main theme and a canon between first viola and first violin. Clearly, though, the artists were having fun, and the audience responded in kind.
While Arnold Schoenberg in 1899 hadn’t yet reached the jump-off point of abandoning diatonic harmony, he was testing the traditional limits of tonality. Strongly attracted to Richard Dehmel’s poem Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), he was inspired to write a tone poem for string sextet (cellist Jonathan Butler joined the other five players) based on it. The poem depicts a man and woman walking in a cold, dark wood: she confesses to him that in her desire to know the riches of life and motherhood, she coupled with another man, a stranger, and is now pregnant. She feels that life is now punishing her for this transgression by putting this second man in her life as she has come to care for him. When the man answers, it is with love and reassurance that he will regard her child as his own, that she has “transfused [him] with splendor [and] made a child of [him].” They walk on through the now silvery-brilliant night. If Schoenberg’s music had not yet departed from the Romantic Era, Dehmel’s poem certainly anticipated the ending of the Victorian Era two years later!
The low, faint pulses of cello and viola set a tone of uncertainty and foreboding at the outset which persisted even as more instruments entered. Soon, however, the tempo began quickening, the dynamic increasing, as (presumably) the woman forces out her truth, leading to the first emotional peak and then a tapering off. An accompanied duet in octaves between the 1st violin and 1st viola (all strings muted) followed, like an interior monologue as the woman wonders what the man’s response will be. The many crescendos and diminuendos contributed much Sehnsucht as the woman yearns to know if she will lose her new love. The musical drama again becomes more intense as she finishes her disclosure. The six players infused their sound with passion but did not let us feel that the music would soon reach a safe resolution (or psychic stability).
More instability followed, with the players exchanging slithery chromatic lines, then joining in an ostinato of two alternating harmonies representing an emotional tug-o-war. Yet ultimately there comes a long passage of calming: its faint final echoes give way unexpectedly to a powerful major chord in the violas and cellos as the man emphatically tells his companion that she has his support and love. Though conventional harmony continued to be “stretched” frequently, the music was more strongly rooted in a tonic key, as befitted the poem (“You are voyaging with me on a cold sea, but there is in me the glow of an inner warmth from you”). A fascinating texture of muted voices combined with pizzicatos ushered in a new theme, brighter if not yet “redeemed.” The Criers gave the ensuing passage of sustained melodies accompanied by murmuring triplets a very striking orchestral opulence. A triumphant climax burst in with descending figures in the melody buttressed by uprushing scales in the lower strings (“You have transfused me with splendor”). As the couple fall silent and walk on through the transfigured night, the strings’ sound turned ethereally beautiful with an exquisite violin solo from Lee over undulating bowed figures as well as pizzicato chords. The conclusion was as profoundly hushed as the opening but now in a celestial D major, conveying redemption and bliss. The audience barely breathed for some time, as silence descended, before applauding rapturously. A Far Cry’s beautiful sensitivity and easy virtuosity won them many new admirers.
Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.