A blustery afternoon in a nearly deserted Rockport backdropped a warm-hearted concert, with rather sizzling music-making. The unusually interesting pre-concert conversation with Barry Shiffman, Rockport’s artistic director, and four of the five performers took place on the third floor—between the wine and the Atlantic, a perfect place for an intimate discussion.
The Vera Quartet, now in its first season as quartet in residence at the ultra-prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, is a lucky group, indeed. They’ve benefited from many opportunities to hone their craft (having won and done much of the quartet competition circuit), including Curtis on Tour, during which, this season they will present Sunday’s program some 15 times with the fabulous pianist Meng-Chieh Liu (later concerts are in January and March). This is an absolutely thrilling time to be in a such a foursome; there are residencies, prizes, and concerts galore for the lucky few who make it through the early years of winning, or at least, placing, in competitions. It helps, I imagine, to have nerves of steel and iron stomachs.
Poised and well-rehearsed, the Vera players acquitted themselves very well in the delightful opener, Beethoven’s Quartet No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 18, No. 4. The violinists took turns at playing first (violin). In the Beethoven and Franck Quintet, the honor fell to Pedro Rodriguez; in the Bright Sheng, Rebecca Anderson made a most favorable impression.
The ensemble made the most of Beethoven’s dramatic contrasts while madking little effort at glossing-over or refining them. They dug in, unafraid of gritty textures.
Bright Sheng (born in Shanghai, China, 1955) wrote his fascinatingly colored String Quartet No. 4, “Silent Temple” for the Shanghai Quartet, who debuted it in 2000. In four unnamed movements, it strikingly reflects Sheng’s visit to an abandoned Buddhist temple in Northwest China in the middle of the 1970s Cultural Revolution. He writes:
As all religious activities were completely forbidden at the time, the temple, renowned among the Buddhist community all over the world, was unattended and on the brim of turning into a ruin.
The most string and powerful memory I had for the visit was that, in spite of the appalling condition of the temple, it was still in its grandiose and magnificent structure. And the fact it was located in the snowy mountainous ranges added to its dignity and glory. Standing in the middle for the courtiers, I could almost hear the praying and the chanting of the monks, as well as the violence committed to the temple and the monks by the “Red Guards.”
To this day, the Memories of the visit remain vivid. And I use them almost randomly as the basic imagines of the composition. As a result, the work has four short and seemingly unrelated movements… performed without pause.”
Perhaps because the foursome coached the work with the composer, they gave a haunting performance, deftly bringing out the violence of Red Guards on attack and its plangent mood shifts. Sheng’s sound effects—lots of string glissandos, mutes on but with very energetic bowing, a super-wide cello vibrato—seemed second nature to this ensemble. Playing first, Rebecca Anderson, delivered a really lovely solo towards the end.
Anytime pianist Meng-Chieh Liu plays nearby, I go, even for the Franck Piano Quintet in F Minor. Thanks in large part to Liu, this often-turgid and relentless exercise sounded sensitive, yet rousing, and even downright thrilling. According to Rockport Artistic Director Barry Shiffman, who clearly relishes it, the “sublime,” dramatic middle movement imparts a “passion level over the top.” (Good copy, if ever one had been needed).
Others have felt differently about this composition (1878-79). Madame Franck privately disdained it, not allowing it to be played again in her lifetime. According to annotator Sandra Hyslop, “Some say that Franck wrote this passionate work under the spell of a young lady student with whom he was infatuated, so perhaps this situation compromised Cécile Franck’s critical faculties.” After playing the piano part in the premiere, Saint-Saëns, who considered Franck a rival, conspicuously left the score on the piano. But, as Hyslop continues, “César Franck had an influence in the music world in inverse proportion to his public renown. Frank drew a circle of admirers and adherents who included Henri Duparc, George Bizet, Vincent d’Indy, Ernest Chausson, and Claude Debussy. In 1866, Franz Liszt admiringly compared Franck’s organ skills to those of Johann Sebastian Bach.”
Franck certainly represents an important dimension of France’s musical climate in the latter half of the 19th century. In addition to his role in the renewal of French instrumental composition, Franck taught organ at the Conservatoire, but owing to his greater emphasis on counterpoint and improvisation than on keyboard technique, he was widely regarded as the academy’s premier composition professor. Despite Saint-Saëns’s reservations, the Piano Quintet is an expertly wrought work cast in cyclic form, a compositional device particularly associated with Franck, in which thematic material from one movement resurfaces in later movements. This technique serves to unify the separate movements; the disparate contexts in which the musical idea appears moreover, infuses it with multiple layers of meaning. Cyclic form closely relates to Wagner’s use of leitmotifs and Liszt’s principle of thematic transformation. The Quintet is built on the germ of a musical idea, a “motto theme,” which provides structural unity (and has the listener thinking—Hey! I know this piece!) by turning up in each movement.
Cellist Justin Goldsmith boomed out. Inés Picado Molares sang like a diva in the viola part. Rebecca Anderson had a distinctive way when she had the tune and when she supported it playing second; Pedro Rodriguez unbridled his exuberance as the leader.
Regardless of her feelings about Franck’s Quintet, this listener adored the piano playing of Meng-Chieh Liu, who wove magic into every note (or bundle of notes) he sent our way. This is a musician who can make even dross sound like burnished gold. His music-making, both as a soloist and chamber music partner, is compelling, powerful, and exceedingly moving. And the Franck provided a perfect vehicle.
Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.