Monday, April 10, 2017

Juilliard Chamber Music: Franck and Dvořák

Yesterday was a beautiful day in New York City with temperatures rising into the mid-60's amid plentiful sunshine.  After having spent several hours in Central Park, I walked to Juilliard to hear a Sunday afternoon performance of chamber music at Morse Hall.  The program featured works by two turn of the century composers, César Franck and Antonin Dvořák.

The recital began with Franck's Violin Sonata in A major (1886).  It was performed by Wei Lu, violin, and Zhu Wang, piano, and coached by Matti Raekallio and Nicholas Mann.  For some reason, I've heard more of Franck's music than usual the past few weeks - both his Quintet and Trio and now this sonata for violin and piano.  Of the three works, the sonata is by far the best.  Written as a wedding present for the violin virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe, the sonata is a late work composed only four years before Franck's death at age 68 and represents his best claim to immortality.  For once Franck was able to go beyond a merely felicitous style to create something of substance.  And not only in the violin part.  The piano part is complex and demanding and is often assigned its own themes to be played alongside those of the violin.  Part of the originality of the work lies in the unusual placement of the movements.  One would normally expect the stormy second movement allegro to be placed first and the softer first movement allegretto (originally envisioned by Franck at an even slower tempo before being persuaded by Ysaÿe to liven it up) to follow behind.  Even so, the two most interesting movements are the third, a recitivo-fantasia with two contrasting themes, and the fourth, an allegretto that is actually a canon whose joyful ending is entirely appropriate to the occasion for which it was written.  The work also has extra-musical significance to students of literature.  It was a great favorite of Marcel Proust and is thought by some critics to have been one of the sources of the fictitious Vinteuil Sonata described in À la recherche du temps perdu.

After intermission, the recital ended with a performance of Dvořák's Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81 (1887).  The musicians were Mitsuro Yonezaki and Jasmine Lin, violins, Frida Oliver, viola, Jonathan Lien, cello, and Yilun Xu, piano; they were coached by Jonathan Feldman.  I had heard this piece performed in January at Juilliard's Chamberfest and had had a chance then to compare it to the other two great nineteenth century piano quintets, the Schumann Op. 44 and the Brahms Op. 34, that were also performed at the festival.  After having heard all three, I decided that the Dvořák quintet was fully the equal of the other two.  Although all three were imbued by the spirit of Romanticism, the Dvořák work stood out for its inclusion of folk sources, most notably in the use of dumky music in the second movement and a furiant dance tune in the third.  Dvořák had previously written, fifteen years before, another piano quintet, also in A major, and had first planned only to revise that youthful work.  The distance Dvořák had moved in the interim, though, made that infeasible.  He had simply matured too greatly as a composer to be able to reach back that far.  He had previously destroyed the score of the Op. 5, so dissatisfied had he been with it, and now he abandoned it once again.  In its place, he came up with an entirely new piece that stood head and shoulders above its predecessor.  Here he was able to seamlessly blend the Romantic Classicism he had learned from Brahms with the Bohemian folk tunes that were his heritage and come up with a lively goodnatured masterpiece.  If one movement stands out, it's the second movement where Dvořák took full advantage of the wild emotional swings of the dumka to move from a quiet and almost tragic mood to one filled with good cheer.

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