Thursday, February 8, 2018

Jupiter Players Perform Ligeti, Dvořák, Kodály and Dohnányi

On Monday afternoon I attended the first Jupiter Players performance I've heard this year.  I was drawn not only by the excellent program that featured works by such renowned Central European composers as Ligeti, Dvořák, Kodály and Dohnányi but also by the outstanding musicianship of both the ensemble players and the guest performers - pianist Drew Petersen and violinist Danbi Um.

The first half of the program consisted of shorter works and opened with the Andante and Rondo Op. 25 (1874) for flute, violin and piano by Franz Doppler.  The work was originally scored for two flutes and piano; Doppler had composed it as a showpiece that he and his brother Karl, both virtuoso flutists, would play while on tour.  Not surprisingly, considering its background, it proved a crowdpleaser that was really more salon music than classical.  The rondo was notable for the gypsy flavoring that Doppler included to emphasize his Hungarian roots.

The next work was Ligeti's Régi magyar társas táncok ("Old Hungarian Ballroom Dances") for flute, clarinet and strings.(1953).  In Ligeti's early days in Hungary, the repressive Soviet regime rigorously banned anything written in a modernist or experimental style.  As a result, the young composer was forced to fall back on more conventional subjects such as this piece which is in reality an arrangement of works by three late eighteenth century composers - János Lavotta, János Bihari, and Antal Csermák - presented in an unobjectionable and highly accessible manner.  Ironically, it's precisely these qualities that have made the Dances one of Ligeti's most popular works.

The Ligeti was followed by Dvořák's Sonatina in G major, Op. 100 (1893) originally scored for violin and piano.  This is one of the composer's "American" works written as a gift for two of his children while vacationing in Iowa.  In listening to the music Dvořák composed while in America, one senses an exuberance and freshness of expression; it's as if the distance from Europe had liberated him from the strictures of Classical Romanticism and had freed him to experiment with a new idiom at least partially based on Native American and Afro-American melodies he had been taught in New York by Harry Burleigh.  It was performed on Monday afternoon in a transcription by Jack Brymer for clarinet quintet.  

The first half of the program then ended with a performance of Kodály's Intermezzo (c. 1905) for string trio.  Along with Bartók, Kodály spent the early years of twentieth century wandering the Hungarian countryside where the two friends, using primitive audio equipment, recorded native folk tunes before they were lost forever to modernization.  Both Bartók and Kodály then went on to incorporate elements of this folk music in their own compositions.  What distinguishes such works, of which the present piece is an excellent example, is the absolute respect both composers displayed toward their sources.  There was no trace of condescension in their respective adaptations, and that fidelity can be heard quite clearly here.

After intermission cellist Zlatomir Fung performed two brief Etudes (Op. 73, Nos. 1 and 22) by David Popper.  I thought the second by far the more interesting of the two.

The final work on the program was Dohnányi's Piano Quartet in F-sharp minor (1891).  The piece was written when the composer was only fourteen years old and had up unitl then received only a limited musical education from his father and the local church organist.  It's intriguing then that he should have chosen the piano quartet for one of his earliest compositions.  The genre had more or less been invented by Mozart in the late eighteenth century but had never become a popular form among composers.  The most notable examples in the nineteenth century had been written by Schumann and Brahms.  Dohnányi's later style of composition was heavily influenced by Brahms, who in fact arranged for the first public performance of Dohnányi's Piano Quintet in C minor in 1895, and it's interesting to speculate that the young composer may already have learned an appreciation of Brahms's music even before commencing his formal musical training.

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