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The Merz Trio opened last season's (2021-22) Chamber Music Wilmington series. It was a happy moment, as that concert marked the return of CMW to the stage after the lengthy Covid interruption. The performance was so strikingly superb, even on a series where one always hears top-quality concerts, that the trio was invited back this season by acclimation. Along with releasing their first CD, Ink, last year, they were prizewinners in the Naumberg Chamber Music Competition, one of the most prestigious competitions in the world.
This concert, a richly varied program of 20th-century works, was at least as impressive as their first one. The vastly accomplished and gifted performers remained: Brigid Coleridge, violin; Julia Yang, cello; Lee Dionne, piano.
The opening piece was the first movement of the Piano Trio in D by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Korngold was born in 1897 to a Jewish family in Austria-Hungary, in what is now the Czech Republic. He was a child prodigy who was composing music by the time he was seven. The piano trio was written when Korngold was 12. Mahler heard his music at about this time and pronounced him a genius. Korngold went on to a top-tier European career before accepting an invitation to go to Hollywood to compose for films. It is for this music that he is best known, though his violin concerto is in the standard repertory as well. The film engagement also probably saved his life, as he was in Hollywood when the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938.
The trio is an already fully Romantic work, reminiscent of Richard Strauss, who by then was famous. It opens with full passion, which the group immediately projected. The violin soared, there were dramatic peaks and valleys followed by a very gentle sighing motive in the strings. Beautiful, lush lyricism was conjoined with well-developed counterpoint. The whole was played with overt intensity and effortlessly perfect intonation.
This was followed without pause by Canto I of the Suite No. 1 for Solo Cello by Benjamin Britten. This nine-movement work, much more dissonant than the Korngold, is the first of three suites that Britten wrote for the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Rostropovich premiered and recorded the piece.
The single short movement was played with full expression by Yang. It was notable also for the pacing of the silences, which enhanced the expression of the music around them. A semi-cadence in ppp stood out and the fade at the end was beautiful.
Again without pause, this was followed by the Piano Trio in C minor of Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich, like Korngold, was a prodigious young talent. He wrote this single-movement piece between the ages of 16 and 17 while a student at the Leningrad Conservatory. It already shows features of the mature composer in its mix of lyricism and biting, acerbic dissonances and rhythms.
The sustained lyricism of the opening immediately stood out. Both the violin and cello played beautiful long lines. The rhythms in the quicker, agitated section were sharp and tight. The piano had a very effective build-up followed by wonderfully ethereal tones. The climax at the near-end evoked for this listener a transcendent white light, before dissolving into the energy of the final run.
The first half was an imaginative mix of styles, emphasized by being played without pause. The design was clearly to set it off in relation and contrast to the vast second half to follow. At perhaps 25 minutes, the first part was half the length of the second.
The second half was devoted to the transcendent Quartet for the End of Time by Olivier Messiaen. Messiaen was one of the great composers of the 20th century, and one could scarcely lavish too much praise on either this masterwork, or the remarkable performance it received. One might also praise the Beckwith Recital Hall acoustics, which permitted every nuance and the softest of notes to be heard with clarity.
The quartet was composed under extraordinary conditions: in a Nazi prisoner of war camp. Messiaen was drafted into the French army at the start of World War II, due to poor eyesight, as a medical auxiliary. Some months later he was captured and imprisoned at a camp in Görlitz, Germany that the Nazis called Stalag VIII-A. The quartet was written in this overcrowded, freezing camp during the winter of 1941, and had its first performance on 15 January of that year. The program sheet was created by a prison inmate and stamped with a Nazi seal indicating that it had been approved. The audience was prisoners and camp guards.
By relative standards, Messiaen was lucky. At the Sachsenhausen camp north of Berlin, captured Russian soldiers were summarily executed with a shot to the back of the neck. Messiaen's ability to compose in the Görlitz camp might remind readers of the well-known concentration camp at Terezín (Theresienstadt), a few hours drive today from where Korngold was born. There, cultural life flourished for a period of time, with prisoners being some of the cream of European talent, including many Jewish composers. The most famous of the Terezín prisoners might be Viktor Ullman, an Austrian composer who had a thriving creative career before the war. However, unlike the outcome for Messiaen, nearly all of these gifted people were deported in 1944 and murdered in Auschwitz.
Messiaen spent about a year as a prisoner before being released, possibly in part because he was already a well-known composer in a camp which did not feature deportations and executions. He and the world are of course most fortunate for that. He was appointed as a professor at the Paris Conservatory in 1941, and taught there until mandatory retirement 37 years later. He had a highly distinguished career as a teacher, alongside his remarkable creative output.
All of that was in the future when Messiaen composed this eight-movement quartet for the four instruments he had available. In this performance, the Merz Trio was joined by clarinetist Oskar Espina-Ruiz, the Artistic Director of Chamber Music Wilmington and an active performer who teaches at the North Carolina School of the Arts.
The deeply Catholic composer titled the score with a phrase from the biblical Book of Revelation. In part the section reads, "I saw a mighty angel descending from heaven, clad in mist, having around his head a rainbow. His face was like the sun…". The program for this concert included the composer's program notes for the piece. They invoke its spiritual content. There is the awakening of birds (Messiaen was a dedicated collector of birdsong and used it repeatedly in his music); harmonies of heaven accompanying the appearance of an angel; praise of the eternity and immortality of Jesus; rainbows and trumpets. Time may not end, but in this piece it certainly stops.
The highlights were many. The second movement, "Vocalise, for the angel who announces the end of Time," has a vehement beginning in the piano. It is high energy with full-weight dissonant chords played here with fine sound. The strings skitter briefly and then become stratospheric. In the extended vocalise, with its haunting piano chords around the strings, time does seem to stop. The playing in this movement was unceasingly beautiful.
Espina-Ruiz was every bit the artistic equal of the Merz group. The long third movement, "Abyss of the Birds," is a clarinet solo. He sustained the movement in what might have been heard as a single long phrase. There were several extremely hushed entrances which grew into a long crescendo. It takes the finest of technical and dramatic control to create this shape.
The hymn-like fifth movement evoked temporal spirituality. It was deeply expressive, with long, drawn-out notes that eventually built to an impassioned, even painful climax. Then the emotion quickly receded to a placid ending. The cello has an extended solo here. Yang played in what seemed like a transported state, eyes closed, in complete synergy with the long, rich lines of expression. It was another place in the piece where time seemed to come to a standstill.
The rhythmic complexities of the sixth movement "Dance of Fury" were handled by the quartet as a whole with what seemed like effortless mastery. The seventh movement, "Cluster of rainbows," brings back the heavenly tones of the second movement, here alternating with vehement passages.
Transcendence ends the work. Coleridge, the violinist, played a long, again-timeless solo over pulsing piano accompaniment. She also appeared to be in a state of transport. The expression was intense, whether loud or quiet. At the end, following the highest, softest possible violin tones, the piano fades into the top register and out of hearing.
Long before the piano and violin reached the hushed conclusion, the substantial audience had been dead silent. The intensity of concentration in the hall was palpable. No applause immediately followed the ending, until finally the silence was broken. That was just as it should have been.