The Swannanoa Chamber Music Festival is now in full swing with a slate of performances in Waynesville, Swannanoa, and Charlotte. This eclectic program at Warren Wilson College’s Kittredge Theatre featured works seldom programmed here by Cambini, Webern, and Ernst von Dohnányi, and the popular String Quartet, Op. 18 No. 4 of Beethoven. I applaud program choices such as these which largely venture beyond the tried-and-true to enlarge our experience of more experimental music, along with the music of a composer such as Cambini which we may have never even heard. Kudos go to Festival Director William Hoyt, who also played a mean French horn on this program.

The program opened with a two-movement Trio for flute, oboe, and bassoon, Op. 45 by Giuseppe Cambini (1746-1825?), an Italian violinist and composer. Little is known of his early life. One colorful legend about him circulated by Fétis was that Cambini and his fiancée had been kidnapped by Barbary pirates and was subsequently ransomed by a music-lover. Around 1773 the composer appeared in Paris where he began publishing works at a great rate, including 82 symphonies concertantes, nine symphonies, seventeen concertos, and over 100 string quintets. This Trio, plucked from 2 sets of trios for this instrumental combination and beautifully played by George Pope, flute, Cynthia Watson, oboe, and Lynn Hileman, bassoon, was a perfect concert opener with its light, airy, and graceful style.

The latter was the classical foil for Anton Webern’s Fünf Sätze for String Quartet, Op. 5 from 1909, played by members of the Jasper String Quartet (J Freivogel and Sae Chonabayashi, violins, Sam Quintal, viola, and Rachel Henderson Freivogel, cello). These five extremely short movements (Heftig bewegt, Sehr langsam, Sehr bewegt, Sehr langsam, and In zarter Bewegung) were showcases of experimental playing techniques on each instrument which generated an astonishing range of timbres. The players clearly love these pieces and seemed totally absorbed by the exacting requirements to perform each fragment, each wisp of sound, each flurry of motion with the utmost control.

Just before intermission came the Beethoven String Quartet in C minor, Op. 18 No. 4, one from the set of 6 composed between 1798-1800. By the time Beethoven turned his hand to composition for string quartet, the instruments were more fully modern, with now-familiar details of construction, such as lengthened neck and fingerboard with greater slope, a more highly arched bridge, and longer bows with newly developed frog to control tension of the bow hair. It is well known that Beethoven loved to challenge the players he knew (and probably those to come in the future) by writing more and more difficult music. In this beautiful and dramatically exciting quartet, Beethoven fills his sonic canvas with big gestures as well as lyrical moments. This ensemble conveyed the kind of musical consensus about interpretation as only a great quartet can do, and the first movement showed us how attuned they were to one another. The second movement was a little fugal gem, having been constructed around various points of imitation which were exquisitely voiced. The famous fourth movement, outstanding for the expert gypsy fiddling by first violinist J Freivogel, brought the quartet to a frenzied close.

The lone work after intermission was the Sextet in C, Op. 37 (1935) for violin, viola, cello, horn, clarinet, and piano, the last piece of chamber music composed by Ernst von Dohnányi (1877-1960). Born in Hungary, Dohnányi was active as a conductor, pianist, and composer. A towering musical presence in Hungary, he left that country in 1944 and, beginning in 1949, was active at Florida State University. The unusual instrumentation of this work has practically guaranteed that it is seldom heard. Stylistically it reveals the kaleidoscopic influences the composer absorbed while still in Europe, especially jazz. The four movements were highly varied: a lengthy opening Allegro appassionato, somewhat bombastic with thick scoring and big moments; a second movement Intermezzo, adagio which featured a puzzling, funereal march (not unlike a Berlioz-type “March to the Scaffold”); a third movement Allegro con sentimento with a very active piano part; and a multi-sectioned Finale with interjections of jazz alongside throwbacks to a sentimental, if asymmetrical Viennese waltz, macabre for its distortion. The performers (Chonabayashi, violin, Quintal, viola, Rachel Freivogel, cello, Bill Hoyt, horn, David Bell, clarinet, and Inessa Zaretsky, piano) did a magnificent job in bringing this huge work to life and received a standing ovation for their fine efforts.