IN: Reviews

Majoring in B-flat


The 51-year-old Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival, in the eighth season under the artistic direction of pianist Mihae Lee, held forth from its home base at the Deertrees Theater in Harrison, Maine on Tuesday in the penultimate of its resident series (other programs take place at various regional venues). Held together by a most intriguing common element (more on this later), the slightly recherché playlist covered the foundational range from early 19th-to early 20th-century pieces by acknowledged masters. A second pianist, Yuri Funahashi, supplemented the show’s roster of standard piano quartet.

If you just looked quickly at the program listing, as we did at first, one would think the opening piece, Trio in B-flat Major by Schubert, was a cherished chestnut of the piano trio repertoire. As it happened, what sounded from the stage was the string trio, D. 471 a single movement from 1816. Deutsch 471 also stands as the second of three such trios Schubert began (he aborted No. 1 of 1814 after only a few bars, but completed No. 3 of 1817), all in the key of B-flat. No. 2 is a charmer, with a Mozartian principal tune and a straightforward progression to the secondary one that puts one in mind of Charles Rosen’s remark that early Beethoven was classicizing more than classical. Every so often a chromatic curveball gets thrown, with some genuinely Schubertian harmonic digressions at the end of the exposition and some gaudy rapid-fire harmonic excursions in the development. The movement winds down to an incongruous and cheeky diminuendo ending, leaving one wondering how it would have continued (the composer probably wondered, too, which may be why he set it aside). Violinist Keiko Tokunaga, violist Matthew Sinno and cellist Bonnie Thron were elegantly and somewhat bemusedly restrained.

In 1892, at the same age as Schubert when writing the D. 471 trio (19), Sergei Rachmaninoff produced his first piano trio, grandly titled Trio élégiaque, in G Minor. Confusingly, his second trio from the following year, in D Minor, had the same sobriquet. The first trio was not obviously an elegy to anybody in particular (Tchaikovsky, in whose memory the second trio was written, was in rude health in 1892), but it should be noted that Tchaikovsky’s own piano trio, an elegy to pianist-composer-conservatory founder Nikolai Rubinstein, has a first movement called pezzo elegiaco. Indeed, the opening melody of the one-movement Rachmaninoff bears some resemblance to that of the Tchaikovsky; Barbara Leish pointed out in her program note that the first four notes of the tune are a retrograde of the famous opening tune of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and claims that nobody hearing the in Russia at the time would have missed this reference. The trio movement unfolds in broadly sonata form, though the first-theme grouping has many facets and suggests something more like a free fantasy in the “just one damn thing after another” form. At the end, the theme morphs into a Chopinesque dead-march in the piano. Tokunaga, Thron and Lee sounded engaged and impassioned; we were particularly taken by Tokunaga’s low register, which had a throbbing, viola-like intensity.

Keiko Tokunaga, violin; Mihae Lee, piano; Bonnie Thron, cello (Mark Silber photo)

A true oddity closed the first half: Lee and Funahashi performed Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in a four-hands arrangement (c. 1939) by jazz trumpeter, composer and arranger Henry Levine (1906-1989). The Rhapsody, famously orchestrated (not once, but thrice, in 1924, 1926, and 1942 for increasingly large ensembles) by Ferdinand Rudolph von (“Ferde”) Grofé and further amended by composer-approved improvisations from members of the Paul Whiteman orchestra who premiered it. Gershwin delivered the score to Grofé in two-piano format, and later made a solo piano arrangement for himself to play. The virtue of piano reductions (think of Liszt’s for the Beethoven symphonies), apart from convenience, is that sometimes the single sonority can bring out inner voicing and phrasing that can be lost in an orchestral blend. The negatives are, well, all that lost orchestration. Try replicating Ross Gorman’s world-famous clarinet glissando on an acoustic piano! Or for that matter, the trumpet fluttertongue “raspberries.” Levine didn’t even try on the former, and of course substituted tremolos for the latter. A particular virtue of Levine’s arrangement (which was of course licensed, and published by Gershwin’s publisher Harms, Inc., now owned by Warner) was the integration of solo and orchestral parts into a consolidated unit (with callouts for obvious solo turns), and the visual delight of watching the players’ arms snaking around one another. For their part, Lee and Funahashi were all in, and rip-roared their way with gusto (and sentimentality, of course, for the big tune). There were a few rough edges, to be sure, but the performers’ enthusiasm, flash and virtuosity brought the house to its feet.

All hands (minus Lee’s) came on deck for the closer, Saint-Saëns Piano Quartet in B-flat major, op. 41 (1875), also technically No. 2, since he wrote one in 1853 that was performed but remained in manuscript until 1992. So can you guess what links all the works on the program? If you don’t already, you may need to know that the home key of the Rhapsody is B-flat. That’s right: though there was nary a clarinet or trumpet to be heard, this concert was a festival for lovers of two-flat key signatures. What does it all mean? Some boffins at the University of Western Michigan have come up with a handy reference guide to the “affective characteristics” of all the keys (i.e. music mood), as they would have been understood by composers and audiences in the Baroque, Classical, Romantic and early Modern periods. What it says about B-flat major is “Cheerful love, clear conscience, hope, aspiration for a better world;” and for G minor, “Discontent, uneasiness, worry about a failed scheme, bad-tempered gnashing of teeth, in a word [sic]: resentment and dislike.” If this reminds you of a horoscope, you’re not alone, but who are we to question the experts? Still, not totally off-base for what we heard Tuesday.

The Saint-Saëns Quartet is, we are informed, now a staple of the piano quartet repertoire; it’s taken a long time to arrive even though it is up there with the composer’s finest chamber music. The first movement offers a Schubertian arpeggiated theme with a rippling accompaniment, and a contrasting chorale-like second subject. Tokunaga, Sinno and Thron contributed plummy and rich sonorities, and Funahashi suavely understated virtuosity, at an amiably ambling pace. The second movement, ostensibly the slow one, misleads with a quick-paced accompaniment (call it a first theme) to a broad chorale-like melody, very much a tribute to Bach chorale prelude style. The forceful playing came with a stately bravura. The third movement scherzo (with two trios) displayed a sharply accented rhythmic figure, gossamer Mendelssohnian piano riffs, and jokey Haydnesque pauses. Once again, in the first trio, Tokunaga shone with her glowing low register. The ensemble maintained all this élan and taut accuracy at a remarkably lively tempo, no small accomplishment. The finale presents a foursquare and somewhat stern melody in D minor, and develops it with contrapuntal vigor as if that’s where it’s going to end. Then, late in the development section, the chorale tune from the second movement returns and is further elaborated, with the movement still trending toward a D minor conclusion, until the coda erupts with a recapitulation of the opening movement tune in B-flat, where it stays till the end; one can see Saint-Saëns winking. Nothing at all was lacking from the tip-top performance.

Readers can experience another great interpretation thereof  HERE.

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.

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