This year’s Swannanoa Chamber Music Festival concluded with a program consisting of two unfamiliar works and one guaranteed crowd pleaser. One of the unfamiliar works, Richard Strauss’s one and only String Quartet, was the undoubted high point of the evening.
The program began with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Divertimento, K. 205. The work is scored for violin, viola, bassoon, "basso" (double bass) and two horns. The "basso" doubles the bassoon, with the two instruments providing a robust bass continuo and an occasional small flourish to embellish a passage. In this performance, cellist Richard Belcher replaced those two instruments, while violinist John Marcus, violist Melissa Reardon and French hornists Bill Hoyt and Ricardo Almeida filled out the ensemble. The five-movement work features the horns prominently in three movements, with the second movement Menuetto highlighting the violin (with a middle section for string trio only) and the third movement Adagio featuring a beautiful viola part, with the horns tacit. While not about to be a “Top Forty” classical choice, this 1773 work demonstrates that Mozart simply could not write a bad composition.
Maureen Nelson joined Mr. Marcus, Ms. Reardon and Mr. Belcher for the next work. The four, who together constitute the Enso String Quartet, played Richard Strauss’s String Quartet in A, Op. 2. This work provides ample proof that while the eighteen-year-old Strauss had not developed his mature style, by 1882 he had thoroughly mastered the classical forms of the German masters. In structure and content, it frequently resembled the chamber works of Schumann or Beethoven, less often reminded one of Mendelssohn, but throughout had a harmonic vocabulary that moved beyond those composers.
In the Allegro, the players showed splendid power without any crassness in their tone. The early measures were Schumannesque, then came passages influenced by the wonderful counterpoint of Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue. The youthful composer had mastered the skilful use of all four instruments, not just writing a tune with harmonic underpinning. The Scherzo was very indebted to Beethoven, with Ms. Nelson shining in her violin solos and with a Trio that was slower and contrasting. The Andante Cantabile that followed was operatic in several ways: its use of tunes suitable for human singing and its use of dialog among the four instruments. The Finale (Allegro Vivace) appeared to be the most difficult movement technically in what throughout is a difficult piece. It is a pleasure to hear this work; more string players should expend the effort to learn it.
Paul Nitsch, pianist, joined Mr. Marcus, violin, and Mr. Belcher, cello to perform Antonin Dvořák’s ever-popular “Dumky” Trio in E minor, Op. 90. Introducing the work, Mr. Nitsch pointed out that the 1890’s was the “pinnacle of nationalism” in Europe, and the tuneful six-movement work is filled with Czech folk tunes. I felt that the three players lacked the tight ensemble that most of the works in this Festival have displayed. The fourth movement, especially, was not well synchronized, without a shared sense of the rubatos. Perhaps it was fatigue setting in after thirteen performances of five different programs, but while it was a good performance, it was not up to the level we have grown to expect.
Now in its 43rd season, the Swannanoa Chamber Music Festival continues to attract a large audience. If they continue to present programs as interesting as this one, they will continue receiving richly deserved acclaim.