IN: Reviews

Sonorous Desserts of Debussy and Ravel

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Claude Debussy by Marcel Baschet

At the waning hours of Thursday’s all-too-rare temperate June day, the dreamily programmed Rockport Chamber Music Festival concert of the Viano Quartet with harpist Bridget Kibbey along with Demarre McGill, flute; Clarinetist Chris Elchico, and double bassist Jeremy McCoy, provided just the right dessert.

The award-winning Viano Quartet (Lucy Wang and Hao Zhou, violins; Aiden Kane, viola; Tate Zawadiuk, cello) got underway with Debussy’s Quartet Number 1 in G Minor—the composer’s sole such work, despite his several promises to write another. The composer named each movement with feeling as well as tempo. The Vianos transported listeners back to the early 1900s with the first phrase of the initial Animé et très décidé, a sonata-form movement enriched by its starting Phrygian mode with melody morphed via changing harmonies throughout, and then a second theme, more pungent, as the exposition moved through varied context, impelled by four-barred phrasing. The terminating codetta brought back the first motif with a firm ending flourish. Violist Kane enchanted with the initial melody placed onto the ostinato background of the others to initiate the Assez vif et bien rhythmé second scherzo movement. Its energetic drive seemed all too brief, with tonality hinting at southeast Asia, as well as an essence of Iberian rhythmicality. In the Andantino, doucement expressif movement, each player contributed soulfully, starting in low registers, eventually soaring upwards before returning to the initial tones. The Très Modéré final movement recaps themes from the earlier sections in novel ways, providing each player an opportunity to comment. Hearing the quartet without applause breaks, one can appreciate the innovation brought to music by this signal composition; here, though, well-intended applause interrupted that flow.

Maurice Ravel (file photo)

After an intermission marked by a colorful sunset, visible through the giant onstage window onto the harbor or on a brief walk, the music resumed with its delightful impressionist theme, featuring works commissioned at the start of the 20th century by the rival and inventive harp (and piano) companies, Érard (pedal harp) and Pleyel (cross-stringed).

Reversing the expected order, the Vianos were joined by Kibbey’s prodigious and joyous harpism, as well as McCoy’s double bass strokes in Debussy’s iconic 1904 Danses – Danse sacrée and Danse profane. Pleyel had funded the composition for harp with string orchestra, now more-often played with other configurations. In the Danse sacrée, after the introduction by the strings, Kibbey’s harp wafted luxuriant, displaying Debussy’s modal tones with deep sonority, and in the faster Danse profane, a whirling yet slow waltz, which became more animated at intervals, concluding quietly. In its early 20th century concert outings, Danses elicited mixed receptions, but here, unabashedly an audience rave. Indeed, the necessary kinetics made Kibbey’s performance seem like a dance in itself.

Debussy’s younger though overlapping contemporary Ravel stood somewhat in the former’s shadow. His emergence occurred when rival Érard commissioned Ravel to write a work demonstrating the prowess of the chromatic harp to the world; the resultant Introduction et allegro pour harpe avec accompagnement de quatuor à cordes, flûte et clarinette M. 46 in G-flat Major succeeded. Ravel dedicated it to Albert Blondel, the head of Maison Érard. In this glorious tone poem, flute and clarinet first introduce what some argue is really a harp concerto. Here, the lyrical pianissimo by the woodwinds, McGill and Elchico, followed by Zawadiuk’s cello and back to the winds prepared for the harp’s entrance in which Kibbey’s prowess wowed. The Vianos and the winds ably supported Kibbey’s phrasing throughout. As the Allegro peaked, the room electrified.

The lack of an encore left many in the audience feeling wistful, as if watching late-June tiger lilies fold and wither at nightfall. Those wishing for more may hear the Vianos today at 5:00 PM at the Shalin Liu.

Julie Ingelfinger studied piano at the Hartt School of Music, Aspen Music Festival and School and at Harvard. She enjoys her day jobs as professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, pediatric nephrologist at Mass General Hospital for Children and deputy editor at the New England Journal of Medicine.

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1 Comment [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. A lovely review Juli. Just one small quibble: In my fifty years down in the harp trenches, I have never heard the word harpism. Also, “the room electrified” is a tad confusing. But glad you. enjoyed it so much. These are wonderful harp pieces. Hope you have a good summer.

    Comment by Susan Mron — June 30, 2024 at 10:11 am

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