Strings tend to dominate in the minds of the average music lovers when thinking of chamber music. There are string quartets, piano trios, and duos for different strings and piano that tend to dominate touring ensembles on concert series. Faculty recitals, such as clarinetist Kelly Burke's, presented in the superb acoustics of the University of North Carolina Greensboro's Recital Hall, offer an opportunity to sample unusual combinations of instruments. Burke is the longtime principal clarinetist of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra, in addition to her teaching duties. Burke was ably partnered by pianist Inara Zandmane in all four delightful works on her innovative and resourceful program. They were joined by four fellow faculty members: violinist Fabián López, violist Scott Rawls, cellist Alexander Ezerman, and Abigail Pack, French horn.
The Trio in B-flat, Op. 11, for piano, clarinet, and cello, is one of the most technically accomplished and appealing works from the early Viennese period of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). In Guide to Chamber Music, Melvin Berger describes the trio as "a fresh, spontaneous, and charming work, with no illusions about being a... profound musical utterance." Zandamane and Burke were joined by cellist Ezerman. Through all the selections, Zandamane's piano lid was fully raised, but she balanced perfectly with her colleagues. She conveyed Beethoven's assertive style in the bold opening statement of the first theme, and Burke sustained this when she entered with the second. After a couple of the composer's toying false endings, cellist Ezerman got a chance to shine during the wonderfully expressive, singing melody that opens the slow movement. The finale bubbled with pleasure as each musician took it in turn over the course of nine variations set to the melody of the aria "Pria ch'io l'impegno" ("Before what I intended") from the opera L'Amor Marino (The Corsair) by Joseph Weigl (1766-1846).
George Rochberg (1918-2005) was an academic, serial composer until after the death of his son in 1963, when he began to find the lack of scope for expression of emotion too limiting. He received extensive critical flack (serious modern music must hurt...) after he used tonality in his String Quartet No. 3 (1972). His Trio for clarinet, horn, and piano (1980) is a delightful piece that makes imaginative use of blending and contrasting this unusual combination. Burke and Zandamane were joined by Abigail Pack, whose horn playing was exemplary, with precise intonation, superb dynamic control, and a pleasing, warm sound. The fast-paced first movement contrasted the horn's long melodic line against rapid passagework from both the clarinet and the piano. Burke's breath-control and clean articulation in fast music is amazing. A highlight of the moody, wistful second movement was soft horn playing with some especially fine muted notes from Pack, using both the mutes and hand-stopping. All three played with refined delicacy. A fugue-like episode, with each instrument taking up the theme in turn, was a highlight the fast concluding movement.
My favorite unusual trio coupling is Contrasts, for clarinet, violin, and piano (1938) by Béla Bartók (1881-1945). Benny Goodman "the King of Swing," wanting a classical work to perform with violinist Josef Szigeti, commissioned the work from Bartók. Their classic Library of Congress recording has seldom been out of print. The opening movement, "Verbunkos," is based on a wild 18th-century Hungarian recruiting dance. The second movement is called "Pihenö" ("Relaxation"); according to Berger, it "combines the tonal qualities of a Balinese gamelan orchestra" with Bartók's typical "night" music. The finale, "Sebes" ("Fast Dance"), opens with the violinist playing a second instrument "with the bottom string raised a half step and the top string lowered the same interval." The musicians played the socks off Contrasts. Burke brought out the sassy, klezmer-like qualities of the higher passages for clarinet, and her cadenza, concluding the first movement, was brilliant. The eerie, nocturnal atmosphere of the second movement was conveyed beautifully. Violinist López dealt with aplomb with the transition from finale's opening scordatura violin to one tuned normally. He displayed a wide range of types of pizzicato.
The Sextet in C, Op. 37, for piano, violin, viola, cello, clarinet, and horn, by Ernöo Dohnányi (1877-1960), is a real rarity in the concert hall or on recordings. Dohnányi is often described as being Brahmsian, but the unrepentant Romantic's playful and witty score more often reminded me of the Richard Strauss of "Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche" ("Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks"). The composer fully exploits individual instrumental characteristics and is ingenious in contrasting and combining them. One movement set the string trio in alteration with the clarinet and the horn. The middle movement's humor was reminiscent of Dohnányi's Variations on a Nursery Tune. Burke and her colleagues pulled out all the stops, and they had a rollicking good time while playing with tight ensemble. They were rewarded with multiple curtain calls by an enthusiastic audience.