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Octetting in Pine Plains

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A three-hour drive from Boston lies the surprisingly rural Duchess County (NY) town of Pine Plains, the somewhat improbable home of the Stissing Center for Arts and Culture. Founded as a project to rescue the town’s Memorial Hall from desuetude and decrepitude, since 2019 it has hosted a variety of cultural programs, among which is a chamber music series, whose offering on Sunday was the final first-run public performance of the Charles Martin Loeffler Octet for two clarinets, harp, string quartet and contrabass, about which we recently wrote HERE.

Obviously, one does not make a whole program out of one 30-minute piece, so Graeme Steele Johnson, clarinetist and editor of the Loeffler manuscript, and his colleagues, deployed their resources in compatible, but in some respects surprising ways. They opened with Les Baricades Mystérieuses (originally spelled Les barricades mistérieuses), a 1717 harpsichord rondeau by François Couperin forming part of the Sixth Order in the second volume of his collected works for keyboard—each Order is devoted to a single key, in this case B-flat major, which happens to be the key of the Loeffler Octet. This received an arrangement in 1994 by Thomas Adès for clarinet, bass clarinet, viola, cello and contrabass. Les Baricades’ rather, well, mysterious title has bedeviled analysts, but one harpsichordist has parsed it, in its original spelling, as a reference to stomping wine grapes (“barrique” meaning a wine barrel). For those who like to go deep into the weeds, the piece has its own Wikipedia entry. For current purposes, its attraction to Adès may have been the rhythmic interactions among the lines that create a kaleidoscopic, fractal-like effect. To our ears, though, the low sonorities Adès chose did not do much to accomplish that result, so that with the absence of guidance from written or oral program notes, this brief opener landed with a bit of a thud. The ensemble, comprising Johnson, Bixby Kennedy on bass clarinet; Matthew Lipman, viola; Audrey Chen, cello; and Sam Suggs, contrabass; while tight enough in their interactions, could perhaps have sharpened their attacks to leaven the sound.

The next bit of surprising programming was the most familiar item on the menu, the Brahms Quintet in B Minor for clarinet and string quartet, op. 115 (1891). To us, it seemed a trifle ballsy to program this piece which, not to put too fine a point on it, may well be the greatest piece of chamber music ever written, as in effect an opening act for the Loeffler. There are, however, extenuating circumstances. There is some internal evidence that the Brahms may have been in Loeffler’s ears when he wrote the Octet six years later: Loeffler’s alla Zingara finale chimes with the Hungarian music in Brahms’s slow movement (and the more abstractly Hungarian quality of the variations finale); the opening movement of the Loeffler makes considerable use of the turn motif that permeates the Brahms; and Loeffler’s slow movement is structured to a considerable degree around the appoggiatura figure that also characterizes Brahms’s principal tune. Ellen Knight’s biography cites Loeffler as telling one of his students that during his own student days in Berlin with Joseph Joachim, Loeffler had performed a piece with Brahms; at any rate Loeffler always held the older composer in the highest esteem.

Sophia Zhou photo

We have occasionally expressed the view that with music for one or two “extra” players with a set ensemble like a string quartet, it’s wisest to use the resources and habitual cohesiveness of a standing group. We may have to reconsider that prejudice in light of the brilliant rendition of the Brahms by Johnson, Siwoo Kim and Kristin Lee, violins, Lipman and Chen. This was, simply, one of the best readings of the Brahms that we have heard in live performance, technically and interpretively impeccable and passionately communicative. Nuff said.

So, finally, to the Loeffler. Our prior article didn’t say very much about the work itself, so here’s a brief synopsis. In three movements, it opens in B-flat major with a few introductory bars followed by a bucolic descending melody incorporating that Brahmsian turning phrase. Loeffler has a reputation for being rather casual with form, and this movement spins off several other melodies that draw much from the opening material, though on the whole it adheres to the sense of sonata form. During his lifetime much was said about Loeffler’s “sound” in terms of wayward modulations, exotic chord changes, and chromaticism, and in this respect the Octet does not disappoint, but it should be stressed that his chromaticism was not particularly Wagnerian in inspiration; one thinks more of Fauré, and in certain early-music references to d’Indy, and though whole-tone scales frequently inhabit Loeffler’s music the direct influence of Debussy is not strongly apparent. The lovely Adagio molto second movement (listen to it HERE from the recording) is in a placid D-flat major and ABA form, with a more agitated central section. The finale begins with a fairly long Andante introduction in a tonally ambiguous F minor/A-flat major (which reappears within the movement) and leads to an Allegro alla Zingara in B-flat minor (so that, like the Brahms B major piano trio and the Mendelssohn 4th Symphony, it follows the unusual pattern of beginning in major and ending in minor), but the mood of the Hungarian Romany music here is quite different from that of, say, the Brahms G minor piano quartet, with a self-control—except for a few ructions, especially at the conclusion—that bespeaks Loeffler’s generally unflashy and somewhat somber personality. It’s an immensely satisfying work in its entirety.

It should be noted that the personnel for the Stissing performance: Johnson and Kennedy; Charles Overton, harp; Lee and Kim (switching seats from the Brahms); Lipman, Chen and Suggs; differed somewhat from those on the recording; in fact, only half of them (Johnson, Kim, Lipman and Suggs, carried over). The reading seemed immediate, perky, effusive and sonically balanced—live performance for the win, favorable acoustics from the Stissing Center’s new hall, plus more performances under the belt. It was apparent from the performers’ faces that they were as sure as the audience was that they had killed it (in the good sense). A very nice video from, we gather, the recording session, is HERE. One hopes more live performances will be forthcoming everywhere, especially once Johnson publishes the score (coming soon, we’re told); meanwhile, there is the CD/streaming download.

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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