Wednesday, September 24, 2014

First Concert of the New Season: The Ariel Quartet and Orion Weiss

Well, Labor Day and Summer have given 'way to Fall and... okay, so let's not think too far ahead, here – but this weekend is the first performance with Market Square Concerts' New Season and it features the current winner of the Cleveland Quartet Award from Chamber Music America, the Ariel String Quartet who'll be joined by pianist Orion Weiss.

You can read more about the quartet, the pianist and this weekend's program in Ellen Hughes' article from her Patriot-News column, Art & Soul, here.

The program includes Beethoven's String Quartet Op. 18/2, the Ravel Quartet and, with Orion Weiss, the Piano Quintet by Ernő Dohnányi, written in 1914.

The concert is at the Market Square Church, Saturday the 27th at 8pm – I'll be doing a pre-concert talk which begins at 7:15. Considering this year is the centennial anniversary of the start of World War I (the war that didn't, alas, end all wars) as well as the 75th anniversary of the start of World War II – as we begin another phase of the War on Terror – my topic will focus on the Dohnanyi quintet which was composed in 1914.

The Ariel Quartet received the Cleveland Quartet Award for this season which was first awarded to the Brentano Quartet in 1997 which has since been awarded to the Borromeo, Miami, Pacifica, Miró, Jupiter, Parker and Jasper quartets – all of which have been heard here with Market Square Concerts through our participation in an elite group of eight presenters around the country ranging from Carnegie Hall to the Friends of Chamber Music in Kansas City, MO.

So in honor of that legacy, here's the Beethoven Quartet Op.18/2 with the Cleveland Quartet from their original 1970s recording of the Early Quartets (self-evident if only from the hair-styles...):

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1st Movement

2nd Movement

3rd Movement, Scherzo

4th Movement, Finale

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The first three of the six early quartets were not composed in the order they were published in, by 1801. Even the first of the quartets was largely rewritten – the sketch book indicates the amount of trouble Beethoven went to to find the final version of the quartet's themes and the published version is quite different from an early copy Beethoven had sent to a friend (then asked him not to distribute it, because he'd since learned how to write for a quartet). It's assumed the G Major (No. 2) was composed third but it still harks back to 18th Century classical style and his teacher Haydn who, at this time, had already finished writing his symphonies but was working on the last two sets of quartets, published in 1799 when Haydn was in his late-60s (he was at the time composing The Creation). 

Because this quartet, with its opening genteel flourish, struck listeners as similar in style to Haydn's, it was nicknamed the “Komplimentier-quartett” or, as it's usually translated, the “quartet of bows and curtsies.”

You can compare Beethoven's with what Haydn was writing around the same exact time – the opening of his Op.77/1 Quartet – performed here by the Avalon Quartet who, by the way, will be playing with Market Square Concerts in November.

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It's hard to believe that Ravel's Quartet, composed in 1902-1903, is a “student work,” written while he was studying with Gabriel Fauré – even though he was 28 at the time and had already written a number of well-known works beforehand (the piano pieces Pavane for a Dead Princess and Jeaux d'eau) plus the Sonatine and the song-cycle, Shéhérazade shortly afterward.

Rejected by the judges for that year's Prix de Rome competition, the Quartet had received both good and bad reviews at its first performance in 1903 – even his teacher thought the finale “stunted, badly balanced, in fact a failure.” Following further controversy with the 1905 competition, no less than Claude Debussy (then in his early-40s and who'd written his own quartet in 1893) wrote to Ravel that “In the name of the gods of music and in my own, do not touch a single note you have written in your Quartet.” Despite his misgivings about the quartet's finale, Fauré was still intensely supportive of his student, something one couldn't always about Haydn and Beethoven.

Here is a recent winner of the Cleveland Quartet Award and a frequent visitor to Market Square Concerts, the Parker Quartet, playing the first movement of the Ravel Quartet:
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And while I couldn't find them playing the rest of the quartet, here's a recording of the complete quartet by the Berg Quartet complete with score. If you don't have the time or don't feel like listening to the first movement over again, the 2nd Movement begins at 7:43.
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I'll be talking more about Ravel, his musical style and its relationship to the years before World War I at my pre-concert talk on Saturday. Ravel also served in the war and was an ambulance driver who, in March, 1916, served at Verdun on France's “Western Front,” one of the longest and costliest battles in history.

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The build-up to World War I did not begin with the assassination of an Austrian archduke in the Balkans in the summer of 1914. Political tensions in Europe had been on edge ever since the end of the Franco-Prussian War in the 1870s and the emergence of the German Empire as a major political and military power. If that seems like going back into the past to find the causes of a war, remember that much of the reason we're fighting in the Middle East today has a lot to do with the Western attitude toward nation-states and the arbitrary establishment of artificial borders there at the end of World War I.

So there's more to the connection between the next piece of music and the start of World War I beyond the fact that both date from 1914.

Not the least of that is the composer's name: born in Hungary (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) of an old Hungarian family that had been ennobled by the Austrians in 1697. Officially, he was Ernst von Dohnanyi, the Germanic form of his name, which is how he styled himself through his career. Today, he is generally known by the Hungarian form of his name, Ernő Dohnányi.

If you listen to his early works, they sound little different from the music being written by Johannes Brahms and the raft of Brahms imitators who dominated the Viennese music scene at the end of the 19th Century, names largely forgotten.

Curiously, his first published piece – though actually the 68th work he composed – is a Piano Quintet that was not only approved by Brahms in 1895, Brahms arranged for its first performance in Vienna.

Here's the opening movement of this 1st Piano Quintet with the Avalon Quartet (again, who'll be appearing with Market Square Concerts in November). Even the last movement (performed here by the Amernet Quartet who'll join us for our April concert) is like one of Brahms' beloved Hungarian Dance finales (though here sounding more Czech than Hungarian).

While it would be easy to dismiss this – an Op. 1, after all – as a youthful work since the composer was all of 17 at the time, it is still a derivative work even if it's by an assured young composer who certainly knows what he's doing even if he hasn't developed his own voice, yet – and how many 17-year-olds have, Mozart and Mendelssohn aside? Even Richard Strauss, writing a horn concerto at 17, sounds more like Schumann than the Strauss we'd come to know and love in the tone-poems written not too many years later.

But what of the second piano quintet?

Not surprisingly, YouTube is full of performances of the first quintet, a much more accessible work. I'm not sure how frequently the 2nd Quintet is performed – suffice it to say this will be the first time pianist Orion Weiss is playing it in public – but I'm sure it doesn't mean that much when I say, frankly, before Peter Sirotin asked me about doing this pre-concert talk, I'd never heard it.

By this time, Dohnányi turned 37, so we're 20 years further along. This Op. 26 Quintet is by no means an extroverted work of a brilliant student showing off what he can do and while it's a much more serious and dramatic work than his Op. 1, I also need to point out the piece he'd recently completed, a set of variations, Op. 25, is a chameleon-like delight for piano and orchestra based on, of all things, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” taken through successive disguises in various styles of the day, from its pompous Wagnerian introduction to jibes at Tchaikovsky and Debussy among others along the way, subtitled “For the enjoyment of humorous people and for the annoyance of others.”

You can hear a (highly recommended) performance with the composer at the piano at the age of 79. The photograph was taken three years later.

And yet, his next work is one of the darkest contrasts imaginable. Like the masks of Comedy and Tragedy, it is a reminder that art can be escapist in challenging times - life goes on - just as it can be remind us that, when times beat us down, we still have a soul.

For those of you who read music and want to follow the score, check out the link to the “Petrucci Library” (the musical equivalent of the Gutenberg Library for literature) and download the score free as a .pdf file.

I suggest this because one of the problems I have with these performances I'm about to post is they only suggest the drama in the music. For those of you who wonder how a piece of printed music can be different from one performance to another, I mention that when a performer butchers Beethoven you're familiar with it's always the performer's fault but when you hear a piece of new or unfamiliar music that doesn't do anything for you, it's always the composer's fault.

My issue is solely with their interpretation: fine musicians, obviously, I just don't feel it lives up to the potential I hear after reading the score.

That said, here are the first two movements, with an ad hoc ensemble of violinists Paul Roby and David Niwa, violist Kenichiro Matsuda and cellist Luis Biava with pianist Mariko Kaneda recorded in an Ohio church. The recording aside, the set-up here is certainly one issue, given the limitations of their performance space.
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1st Mvmt

2nd Mvmt “Intermezzo”

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The 3rd Movement threw me – I couldn't continue with the same performance because their video stops before the last 17 measures or so (how can that happen? why post it if it's not complete?) The other video available of this work is by a student ensemble (otherwise unacknowledged and recorded in such a way you would never know there was a pianist on stage with them) from a local music academy in Salem OR – in that sense, congratulations on the performance, though again I'm not promoting it as a professional and authoritative interpretation.
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Admittedly, my first impression was “where's the fourth movement?” There had to be a finale, right? It certainly didn't sound complete – one problem I had with either performance. But when I read the score, I realized how the ending “works” – a vague and perhaps unsatisfactory “conclusion” for a time that was anything but satisfactory and conclusive.

While the counterpoint suggests the tension of Beethoven's “Grosse Fuge” – and I think for a reason, given the composer's Germanic side – I feel the performers haven't quite grasped that. And the return to the material of the opening movement – a typically French gesture from the late-19th Century “cyclical” style of Saint-Seans and Franck – is more than just a “reflection” on previous material as Brahms might do. It leaves you in the dark – and E-flat Minor is, no matter how you play it, a “dark” key, but with, at the very end, a beatific-sounding E-flat Major chord by way of benediction.

What the unsettled period before the War would mean to Dohnányi is one thing – he was in Berlin before the war started and where I'm assuming this piece was composed – but he would return to Budapest in 1915 where life during the War would be quite something else.

(You can read more about life in Hungary around this time – when Bartók was composing his ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin – in this post, part of a pre-concert talk for the Harrisburg Symphony.)

Dohnányi was one of the great pianists of his day and while he may have been described as “one of the first great concert pianists to regularly play chamber music” (I'm not sure how Clara Schumann would react to that), his organization of the musical life of the Hungarian capital was prodigious. According to his younger colleague (and decidedly anti-German) Bela Bartók, Dohnányi, who gave about 120 concerts per season in Budapest during the still unsettled years following the war, provided the entire musical life of Hungary both as conductor and pianist.

His son Hans von Dohnanyi would become an official in Germany before and during the 2nd World War when he was involved in the 1944 plot to kill Hitler. He was arrested and then sentenced by Hitler himself to be hanged, strung up by piano wire. Hans's son, Christoph, born in Berlin in 1929, would leave Hungary with his grandfather in 1944 and later become one of the leading conductors of his generation.

After leaving Hungary's wartime fascist state before the Soviet occupation, Dohnányi never quite rejuvenated his international career, and eventually settled in Tallahassee, FL, where he taught at Florida State University and died in 1960 while in New York City recording some Beethoven sonatas for the Everest label at the age of 82.

My talk for this program – which will focus on the music in relation to war-time – will be posted after the concert.

- Dick Strawser

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