Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Juilliard ChamberFest: Corigliano, Bax and Brahms

One of the events I most look forward to each season is Juilliard's ChamberFest program.  Every year, a select group of students give up a week of their mid-term vacation to take part in a series of intensive chamber music workshops, the products of which are duly presented during the second week of January.  The lucky audiences have an opportunity to hear masterworks by noted composers, many of which are not performed as often as one would wish.

The first recital I attended was held yesterday afternoon at Paul Hall and featured works by John Corigliano, Arnold Bax and Brahms.  The Corigliano was of special interest since this is only the second time I can remember a work for only two instruments having been included in a ChamberFest program, the first having been Messiaen's Visions de l’Amen in 2016.

It was in fact with Corigliano's Chiaroscuro for two pianos (1997) that the program opened.  The piece is often cited as an example of quarter tone music in which twelve equivalent intervals of the chromatic scale are split into twenty-four equivalent microtonal intervals. As pianist Anna Han explained before beginning the performance, the composer, who had been commissioned to write the piece for a two-piano competition, had felt it would be repetitive to have two pianos limited to the same eighty-eight keys and so had required that one piano be tuned a quarter tone lower than the other, thus providing the musicians with a total of one hundred seventy-six keys.

As a photographer, I was intrigued by the work's title.  "Chiaroscuro," defined in Wikipedia as a "technique, developed during the Renaissance, that uses strong tonal contrasts between light and dark to model three-dimensional forms, often to dramatic effect," is an important tool in photographic lighting.  Corigliano also obviously had photography on his mind since he named the three movements "Light," "Shadows" and "Strobe."  And indeed there were strong tonal contrasts throughout the length of the work.  

The two extremely talented pianists were Anna Han and Yijia Wang.  They were coached by John Corigliano himself who then appeared onstage to take a bow at the end of the performance.

The next piece was Bax's Piano Quintet in G minor (1915).  Although idiosyncratic in its composition, the fairly long piece was highly accessible, perhaps because much of it displayed strong Romantic influences.  The most interesting movement of this work though, at least to anyone of Irish descent, was the middle that was easily recognizable as a Celtic melody.

The work was performed by Sophia Steger and Sein An, violins, Isabella Bignasca, viola, Jenny Bahk, cello, and Siyumeng Wang, piano; they were coached by Jonathan Feldman.

After intermission, the recital ended with the only well known piece on the progrram, Brahms's Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor, Op. 60 (1875), nicknamed the "Werther."  As a composer, Brahms was ever the perfectionist - he is reputed to have destroyed some twenty string quartets before finally allowing publication of the two that made up the Op. 51 - but there is something more at work in the length of time, almost a full twenty years, that elapsed before he completed work on the present piece.  He began drafting it in 1855 at roughly the same time he commenced work on his first two piano quartets, the Opp. 25 and 26, but while those were published shortly thereafter Brahms did not publish the final version of the Op. 60 until 1875 after having made extensive revisions including the change of home key from C sharp minor to C minor.  Other and more significant changes included the composition of a new finale, the old having been recast as the scherzo, and a new slow movement.

If one wonders why Brahms was so conflicted over this particular work, the answer may lie in its thoroughly Romantic "Werther" nickname.  It was the composer himself who first connected the work to Goethe's doomed sturm und drang protagonist when he wrote to his close friend Theodor Billroth that "the quartet has communicated itself to me only in the strangest ways...For instance, the illustration to the last chapter of the man in the blue frock and yellow waistcoat."  Brahms then expanded on the analogy when he submitted the manuscript to his publisher Simrock, writing:
"On the cover you must have a picture, namely a head with a pistol to it. Now you can form some conception of the music! I’ll send you my photograph for the purpose."
Werther, of course, also shot himself in the head, driven to suicide by his love for a woman engaged to another man, and Brahms had found himself in an eerily similar situation in 1855 when staying with the Schumann household after Robert had been committed to an asylum.  Brahms, despite the Classical structure of his works, was nothing if not a Romantic and so identified with Werther's plight that he more or less declared his own strong feelings by transposing in the quartet's first movement Schumann's own Clara motif into one created by himself.  In this regard, there is an interesting article by Eric Sams entitled "Brahms and his Clara Themes."  It may be then that Brahms so procrastinated over the publication of the Op. 60 because he felt that in its original form it was simply too personal a work to be made public.  Even in the quartet's revised form, the first movement seems overwrought, especially for a composer as reserved as Brahms.  In a like manner, the beautiful slow movement can only be described as a hymn of ineffable longing.

The musicians for this last work were Byungchan Lee, violin, Elijah Spies, viola, Jonathan Lien, cello, and Chaeyoung Park, piano; their coaches were Lara Lev and Vivian Weilerstein.

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