Saturday, April 1, 2017

Juilliard Chamber Music: Kim and Schumann

Earlier this week, I walked down to Lincoln Center to  to hear a forty minute recital of chamber music, one of Juilliard's Wednesdays at One series, at Alice Tully Hall.  There were only two pieces on the program and both were performed by the Kahlo Piano Quartet, part of the Honors Chamber Music program.  The ensemble consisted of Rannveig Sarc, violin, Lisa Sung, viola, Clara Abel, cello, and Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner, piano.

The program opened with a new piece of music, entitled coexistence, by Byung Gu Kim.  The work had won the most recent Gena Raps Piano Chamber Music Prize and this performance was actually its world premiere.  I wish I could say more about this composition, but unfortunately no information was given in the program notes nor was I able to find any material online concerning it.  Adding to the difficulty was its short length - it lasted only twelve minutes and was over almost before it began.  I can say that, despite its brevity, it was divided into four sections performed without pause.  These were: 1a, ritual; 1b, gamelan; 2a, compulsion; and 2b, fixation.  Of these, it's the title "gamelan" that stands out, but I failed to hear in this quartet any influence of the Indonesian percussive music to which the term refers (though I have to admit my knowledge in this area is sketchy at best).  Instead, the piece, filled with dissonance, sounded entirely modernist.

The second and final work on the program was Schumann's Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 47. The work was written in 1842, the year that Schumann, following his usual practice of immersing himself in a particular genre, devoted to the composition of chamber music. It was in this same year that he wrote the Piano Quintet, Op. 44, also in the key of E-flat major. I've heard both these popular works performed several times over the past few months - the present ensemble played the Quintet at an earlier recital in January - and have had time to better appreciate the differences between them. The Quartet was completed immediately after the Quintet - Schumann may actually have worked on both at the same time - and at first I thought the composer might have been attempting in the Quartet to further develop the musical ideas he had conceived in the earlier work. Now, though, I'm more inclined to the view that both works are fully self-contained and instead represent two different approaches to the difficult task of integrating the piano with string instruments in a chamber work. Tchaikovsky was later to face this same problem when he began considering the composition of a piano trio; he wrote at the time to his patron Nadezhda von Meck:
"I simply cannot endure the combination of piano with violin or cello. To my mind the timbre of these instruments will not blend ... it is torture for me to have to listen to a string trio or a sonata of any kind for piano and strings."
While this is something of an overstatement - Tchaikovsky's trio, when he finally overcame his reservations and completed it, is one of the masterpieces of the chamber repertoire - it nevertheless underlines the dilemma faced by any composer of such a work. In Schumann's case, the difficulties he faced in composing the Quintet were all the greater in that he had no real precedents to guide him. Schumann more or less created a new musical form with the Quintet and in so doing paved the way for the piano quintets of Brahms and Dvořák.

How then do the Quartet and Quintet differ from one another? As one might expect from the inclusion of an additional instrument, the Quintet has a larger sound, at times striving for an orchestral effect. It is clearly a work intended to be played in a concert hall to a full audience, and in fact it had its public premiere at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. The first movement, marked allegro brillante, is in the heroic mold as it boldly proclaims the main theme while the opening of the final movement is decidedly percussive as it builds to a dramatic conclusion in the form of a double fugue. In between, there's an additional element of drama in the second movement funeral march that hearkens back to Beethoven. In contrast to all this, the Quartet is much more intimate in nature, the type of work meant to be performed among friends in the privacy of a drawing room. The scherzo, unusually placed as the second movement, is quite playful while the third movement andante is filled with a Romantic yearning reminiscent of Schubert's piano works, particularly the E-flat major Trio. The final movement again contains contrapuntal writing but, though marked vivace, here the effect is more intellectual than visceral. In short, the two works complement one another perfectly and I don't believe it's possible to fully appreciate the one without having heard the other.

I was very glad to have heard the Quartet at this recital as I had a ticket for the following evening to Carnegie Hall to see the great pianist Mitsuko Uchida perform two Schumann pieces for solo piano, Kreisleriana and the Fantasie in C major.  I felt that hearing so many works by the same artist would give me greater insight into his style as a composer. 

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