The Jupiter Players actually began their season two weeks ago; unfortunately, the temperature (97F) that day set a record here in New York City while the performance venue - Good Shepherd Church on West 66th Street - lacked air conditioning. As I was scheduled to fly to Arizona the following day, I reluctantly decided not to attend. Yesterday, then, was for me the true start of 2015-2016 classical music season, an overview of which I provided in my last post. I felt the program offered by the Jupiter Players - which included works by Prokofiev, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Mana-Zucca - was as an auspicious beginning as I could have wished.
The afternoon began with Prokofiev's Sonata in C major for Two Violins, Op. 56 (1932). The composer is such an icon of Soviet culture that it's difficult to remember that, prior to his return to the USSR in 1936, he sojourned for many years in both the USA and Western Europe. The present piece was actually written while he was on holiday in St. Tropez which, to my mind at least, is the last place one would associate with this Russian artist. Although to the best of my knowledge Prokofiev was not a violinist (he was, however, a virtuoso pianist), I've found his works for violin to be among the most interesting of his creations, particularly the fascinating First Violin Sonata, Op. 80. The present piece was obviously an important work, but this was actually the first occasion I'd had to hear it. Prokofiev claimed to have been inspired to write it after having heard another sonata for the same instrumentation (by a composer he left unnamed) that he considered "unsuccessful."
The next work was Beethoven's Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 16 (1796) for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon. As is evident from the opus number, this was a very early work written long before the composer began to experience difficulties with his hearing and was still known in Vienna primarily for his talent as a pianist. As was the case with most of his compositions from this period, Beethoven was here heavily under the influence of Haydn and Mozart whose own Quintet, K. 452 is often thought to have provided the model for this work. The attribution is hardly surprising since both quintets are not only scored for the same instruments but are also written in the same key. Nevertheless, even to a non-musician such as myself, there are substantial differences between the two works. Most importantly, the earlier quintet is a much more mature composition written when Mozart had already achieved full mastery of his powers. Although Beethoven had already written several pieces for piano by this stage in his career, this was among the first to incorporate winds as accompaniment.
There is an amusing anecdote regarding the Beethoven quintet told by his protege Ferdinand Ries that is quoted on the Jupiter Players' website:
"In the last Allegro a pause occurs several times before the theme returns; on one of these occasions Beethoven began to improvise, taking the Rondo as his theme, pleasing himself and those listening for a considerable time, but not pleasing the other players. They were annoyed, and the oboist even enraged. It really looked highly comical when these gentlemen, expecting the movement to be resumed at any moment, kept putting their instruments to their mouths, but then had to put them down again without playing a note. At length Beethoven was satisfied, and started up the Rondo again. The whole assembly was delighted."
After intermission, the ensemble performed Mana-Zucca's Hakinoh, Op. 186 (1956) for viola and piano. To be honest, I had never even heard this composer's name - she was born Gussie Zuckermann in 1885 - before having seen the program for Monday's recital and so had no idea what to expect. All I knew of this artist came from having read the brief biography on Wikipedia referenced above. The idea of any musical figure (she was apparently also a pianist and soprano) staging concerts in a Miami living room was certainly intriguing, though, and I was very much looking forward to hearing her music. This proved to be a very short piece (approximately five minutes long) that contained a number of references to Jewish folk music. The expert violist Paul Neubauer gave a particularly impassioned rendition.
The final piece on the program was Mendelssohn's String Quintet No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 87 (1845), a late work written only two years before the composer's death. Though the piece is today often performed and is recognized as a standard of the chamber repertoire, the composer himself did not hold it in high regard and it was only published posthumously in 1851. Judging from comments he made to his associate Ignaz Moscheles, his associate at the Leipzig Conservatory, it was the finale, an allegro molto vivace, that gave Mendelssohn the most trouble and caused him to put the work aside. Interestingly, violinist Mark Kaplan mentioned to the audience that the version being performed here was not the standard edition but one published only recently. He seemed to suggest that the differences lay primarily in the final movement and that this version was closer to the composer's autograph. It was really the third movement, though, marked adagio e lento (most slow movements composed by Mendelssohn were marked andante), that I found most interesting.
After not having seen the Jupiter Players for several months, it was refreshing to be reminded how skilled and professional these musicians are and what incredible guest artists they are able to attract. The ensemble represents a wonderful resource for anyone with the slightest interest in the chamber repertoire. I plan to see them many more times in the coming months.