Chamber Music Review Print

The Charms of Less-Often-Played Works on Spoleto USA Chamber Music Programs V-IX

June 9, 2005 - Charleston, SC:

After years of urging from players – and after piecemeal samplings of its separate movements – Charles Wadsworth finally presented a complete performance of Quatour pour la Fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time) by Olivier Messiaen on this season's Chamber Music Program V, heard June 3. The pattern for this successful series has resembled a smorgasbord, with a light appetizer, then a relatively new work as a sampler of sorts, and finally an old favorite from the top-ten composers. Twentieth-century works have tended to be scheduled in the midweek when the concerts are less apt to be sold out. Having an all-Messiaen program on a prime Friday was daring but fully justified since the Quatour is one of the greatest works of the last century and an inexhaustible font of musical and spiritual depth.

The piece was composed while the composer was an inmate in the German prisoner-of-war camp at Görlitz, Silesia, from 1940-42. The unusual scoring – for violin, clarinet, cello, and piano – was due to the fact that these were the instruments that the composer and a few fellow prisoners played. The premiere was given January 15, 1941, in Stalag VIII-A, before an audience of some 5,000 other prisoners. According to Messiaen, the brutal life in the camp, along with the lack of food, "made him dream of sound colors, which he tried to capture in his music" (as recounted in Melvin Berger's Guide to Chamber Music).

The musicians for the Dock Street Theater performance were violinist Daniel Phillips, clarinetist Todd Palmer, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, and pianist Jeremy Denk. A detailed account of this performance would entail many repetitions alluding to the extraordinary kaleidoscope of sound colors, the rich variety of instrumental timbres, and dynamics ranging widely, from extreme pianissimos, barely audible, to stormy tutti. The composer is well known for his penchant for birdcalls, and there were chirpings and trillings aplenty in the opening movement, "Liturgy of the Crystal." The second movement, "Vocalise for the Angel who announces the end of time," featured a wide rainbow of color from all four players. Gorgeous delicate cascades from the piano surrounded the plainchant-like recitative of the violin and cello that sounded like a distant carillon. Todd Palmer, who has played the third movement, "Abyss of the Birds," during several past seasons, plumbed his solo clarinet part from its darkest depths to its highest notes. A short and lively "Interlude" for all four was followed by the aching melancholy and majesty of the fifth movement, "Praise to the Eternity of Jesus," painted with the full, rich tones of Weilerstein's solo cello. The following "Dance of Fury" found the players somehow conjuring up the effects of gongs and trumpets. This movement is the most rhythmically idiosyncratic. Passages from the second movement return in the seventh, "Cluster of Rainbows," which featured breathtaking luminosity of sound leading to an ecstatic vortex. The eighth and last movement, "Praise to the Immortality of Jesus," featured Phillips' solo violin as it conveyed the ascension of both mankind and the Son of God toward the Father in ever higher notes played with precise intonation. I have heard a number of fine performances of this masterpiece, but none was superior to that given by Wadsworth's seasoned team of virtuosi.

The apt opener for the concert was Messiaen's "Le Merle Noir," perhaps one of the most frequently-heard pieces by the composer. Flutist Tara Helen O'Connor joined pianist Denk in this delightful early use of bird calls that demands and received wonderfully exact high notes along with trills aplenty.

Leaving the Dock Street Theatre, I overheard some folks complaining that they preferred a more diverse mixture of works, while others were much taken with the extraordinary sounds they had just heard. It had been well worth a wait of nearly ten years to hear the work in its entirety in such a superb performance. (During the same period, Piccolo Spoleto performed the Quartet complete at least twice.)

Chamber Music Program VI, heard June 4, found Wadsworth's menu returning to a typically eclectic mix. In the spring of 1922, Sergei Prokofiev sat on a jury for a composition contest in Paris and suffered through a very poorly written sonata for two violins. Later that year he composed his Sonata in C, Op. 56, for two violins. What a luxury it was to have this short four-movement work seemingly tossed off effortlessly by Corey Cerovsek and Chee-Yun! When appropriate, phrasing and intonation matched with unbelievable exactness.

The St. Lawrence String Quartet offered up a gentle and melodic appetizer, Puccini's lyrical short movement "Crisantemi" ("Chrysanthemums") (1890). This made a fine cleanser of the musical palate after the delightfully acerbic Prokofiev.

The aptly-named "Jet Whistle" by Heitor Villa-Lobos followed. The playful short three-movement work was given a vivid turn by flutist Tara Helen O'Connor and cellist Andrés Díaz. Wadsworth prefaced the performance, telling about the Brazilian composer's lifelong love of the sound of trains. Díaz managed to make his cello sound like the rhythmic pulse of wheels while O'Connor gave her flute a real workout; the blast of the whistle was unmistakable in the last movement.

At the Dock Street series, pianist duties have been traditionally split between two artists who take a week in turn, rarely overlapping their schedules. Jeremy Denk left after the Messiaen for the music circuit and the ever-popular pianist Wendy Chen, a native Californian, began her duties with this concert. She partnered Cerovsek for a brilliant rendition of Maurice Ravel's Sonata for violin and piano. The composer wrote that it is for two "essentially incompatible instruments... that accentuate the incompatibility to an even greater degree." It was a treat to hear the two virtuosos fully exploit the contrasts of tone colors and sonorities. The dynamics ranged from barely-whispered pianissimos to snarled fortes – with no loss of precision in intonation.

At the heart of this series' unflagging popularity is the sheer delight of seeing and hearing musicians play at the top of their form while clearly having fun with the give-and-take among artists who share similar outlooks.

Chamber Music VII, heard June 6, was both eclectic and substantial. Romantic American and German music sandwiched a sardonic 20th century Russian quartet.

"Night Piece" (1918) by Arthur Foote was presented in its original form, a nocturne and scherzo for flute and strings. It is the most popular work by the composer, and it was given an exquisite performance by Tara Helen O'Connor and the St. Lawrence String Quartet. A simple and flowing melody hovered above strings that almost whispered their divided bowed and pizzicato parts. Later the flute became more assertive. Several sweet melodic episodes were memorable – a duet played by both violinists and a mezzo-piano solo by first violinist Geoff Nutall over softer strings.

Dimitri Shostakovich's three-movement Quartet No. 7, in F sharp, Op. 108 (1960), was dedicated to the memory of his first wife, Nina. Played without pause, it explores aspects of quartet writing not previously found in his works. The St. Lawrence String Quartet gave full rein to the sardonic tone throughout the piece. Most memorable was the slow, ominous middle movement that began with second violinist Barry Shiffman's line above a muted accompaniment. A long-breathed theme played by Nuttall was followed by cellist Chris Costanza and violist Lesley Robertson entering in turn, playing open fifths. The striking glissando that followed was the first such to appear in any of the composer's quartets. The end of the last movement, which is full of wide dynamic contrasts, began with the sumptuous viola of Robertson etching what sounded like a haunted waltz.

Brahms' Piano Quartet No. 3, in C minor, Op. 60, heard far less often than the boisterous First, in G, was a welcome capstone for the concert. It has the distinction of being the only work to which the composer ever made a nonmusical allusion – to Goethe's novel Die Leiden des jungen Werther. As played by violinist Chee-Yun, violist Daniel Phillps, cellist Andrés Díaz, and pianist Wendy Chen, the first movement was intense, with thick textures. The jagged chords and strikingly misplaced accents of the second were followed by the achingly beautiful love theme, crooned by the cello, in the third movement. The bittersweet and wistful mood of the finale was perfectly conveyed. Throughout, the piano never once covered any instrumental line but nevertheless was unstinting its expressive qualities. The string attacks were razor sharp, and the intonation was spot-on. The give-and-take between the musicians was enthralling.

Chamber Music Program VIII, heard June 7, was typical of those in which Charles Wadsworth features novelties. Benjamin Godard's Suite de Trois Moeceaux is a showy trifle intended to give flutists the maximum scope to strut their technique. The brisk "allegretto" requires great accuracy and ends with a brilliant high note. A singing melodic line is featured in the slow and romantic "Idyll," while the last movement is a fast burlesque of a waltz. Flutist Tara Helen O'Connor turned in a dazzling performance, flawlessly executing incredibly fast runs and precisely negotiating the work's wide compass from the lowest range to that remarkable and exposed high note. A lovely piano part revealed that all of Wadsworth's "chops" are still in order.

Wendy Chen is a consummate chamber music player; with the piano lid always fully raised, she gives full value to her instrument's timbre while never covering her colleagues' lines. From time to time, Wadsworth offers tantalizing morsels of Chen the soloist. Sergei Rachmaninov's Preludes, Op. 23, test pianists' dexterity, strength, and ability to sustain a Romantic line. Chen brought a visceral depth to the slow Prelude in D Minor, weaving its melody beautifully. The stormy Prelude in B-flat lacked neither muscularity nor speed and ended brilliantly with a fiery arpeggio.

There were plenty of lively folk-like melodies in the rarely-performed Sextet in A, Op. 48, of Antonin Dvorák. Composed around the same time as the popular Slavonic Dances, it is representative of his nationalist style. Among the ethnic themes are elements of the polka in the first movement, the composer's first use of the dumka in the second, and the skocná in the fourth. Alert and well-sprung rhythms and lively melodic give-and-take were characteristic of the passionate playing of the St. Lawrence String Quartet joined by violist Daniel Phillips and cellist Andrés Díaz. This work is unjustly neglected in both the concert hall and the recording studios.

Chamber Music Program IX, heard June 9, featured less-often-performed works and introduced a promising new composer. Two of the works gave virtuosos plenty of scope for scintillating technical display.

Charles Wadsworth accompanied the irrepressible clarinetist Todd Palmer in the "Solo de Concours" of André Messager. Gabriel Fauré, director of the Paris Conservatoire, induced Messager to write a test piece for clarinet to be used by its graduates. It starts with a perky tune that soon turns to running triplets and that is followed by a cantabile section with a winning melody. Another engaging theme begins the slow movement, barely breathed by the clarinet at first and then exploding into dazzling arpeggios from the piano. The agility and breath control of the soloist are tested before a series of stunning trills that lead back to the opening melody. The fast finale rushes headlong to end in a flourish of triumphant B-flats. Palmer's literally breath-taking performance revealed him to be one of today's finest clarinetists, one who welds together musicianship, technical facility, and showmanship, in equal measure.

A vital function of this series is the presentation of new performing talent and rising stars among today's composers. Past festival programs have sampled the growth of Argentine composer Oswaldo Golijov, who combines elements of the tango with those of the klezmer tradition. This year's featured composer was Kevin Puts, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, who received his bachelor's degree and a Doctor of Musical Arts from the Eastman School of Music and a master's degree from Yale. Among his teachers were Samuel Adler, Joseph Schwantner, Christopher Rouse, and Jacob Druckman. He first came to international attention as a Young Concert Artists' Composer-in-Residence and was the first composer officially to join the YCA management roster.

Puts' Four Airs ("Air" in the sense of "aria"), for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, originated as a commission from violinist Chee-Yun for an encore piece. Wadsworth chatted informally with the composer about the origins of the piece and his musical influences, said to be "more American film music than Sibelius." Puts, an accomplished pianist, accompanied flutist Tara Helen O'Connor, clarinetist Todd Palmer, cellist Andrés Díaz, and violinist Chee-Yun in the performance. O'Connor's hyper-agile fingers and embouchure were equal to the challenges of a flute air that Puts described as "three minutes of one million notes." The piece also utilizes the flute's complete compass, from throaty low sounds to high, exposed notes, all impeccably pitched on this occasion. Puts repeated a single piano note as Díaz's dark-toned cello worked up a stormy section before ending in a soothing calm. Puts said that for the "Air for Clarinet" he drew upon the style of Josquin des Prés, trying to compose using "a rhetoric that draws people in." The beginning is clear and open, becoming complex and dense later. Using parallel block chords, Palmer plumbed the deep, low notes and soared to spectacular highs with some remarkable leaps along the way. During the "Air for Violin," Puts' piano part seems at times to recall traditional hymns while a sweet and sentimental melody is played by the violinist – Chee-Yun, for this performance. Her gorgeously-toned instrument sang it beautifully, and an episode in which the strings barely breathed a melting tune that will linger long in my memory. Puts is clearly a major talent whose work deserves wide exposure and encouragement. (Apparently an elderly gentleman had fainted during the morning performance of this program; Wadsworth happily reported that he was doing well and that "the sight of Chee-Yun in her red dress had instantly restored him to life!" As with the Eroica Trio, when Chee-Yun is on stage, there are no drooping heads in the male contingent of the audience.)

Melvin Berger, in the Guide to Chamber Music, writes that Brahms' second Piano Trio, in C, Op. 87, "finds the 49-year old composer at the height of his creative powers." There is an abundance of melodic material in all four movements. To balance the tonal weight of the piano, he quite often doubles the writing for the two strings. Pianist Wendy Chen, violinist Chee-Yun, and cellist Díaz threw themselves into the work, giving full value to its "wide emotional range – from surging passions to ghostly whispers, from stirring pronunciamentos to tender sentiments." The second movement, wherein the strings play an Hungarian-sounding melody using a Scotch snap above offbeat piano chords, was delightful. The five variations that follow were given with verve that admirably reflected the composer's wishes and his high standards. This was a welcome change from the more-frequently-programmed First Piano Trio, Op. 8, which is usually given in its revised version.

From the standpoints of both programming and performances, this 2005 edition of the Spoleto USA Chamber Music Series was the strongest in its 29-year history. Audiences listened in rapt attention to an all-Messiaen program, enjoyed less-often-played masterworks instead of rehearings of warhorses (such as yet another "Trout" Quintet, "American" or "Death and the Maiden" quartets, or "Archduke" Trio), and savored the music of a promising new composer. The series also showed renewed vitality. A friend posited the disturbing thought that he and I are now as old as Wadsworth was when we first heard him on the series in 1979, but there's curiosity about all corners of the repertory in us, still – and in the series' host and his remarkable colleagues. Bring on more of this varied fare in 2006!

Note: This is the sixth of a series of reviews of Spoleto USA and Piccolo Spoleto events by CVNC critics. For an index containing links to earlier commentary (by Ken Hoover & William Thomas Walker), click here. And for an interview with Charles Wadsworth, conducted in Charleston by WCPE announcer (and CVNCer) Ken Hoover, click here [inactive 2/10].