Thursday, March 8, 2018

Ensemble Connect Performs Stravinsky and Messiaen

On Tuesday evening, I went to Paul Hall to hear the Ensemble Connect give one of its four annual recitals at that venue.  This was the first time I'd heard the Ensemble this year, however, as its January recital had been indefinitely postponed due to a heavy snowfall.  The group was luckier on this occasion, and the nor'easter that had threatened the East Coast with heavy snow did not in fact arrive until the following day.

The program opened with Stravinsky's Three Pieces for String Quartet (1914, rev. 1918) as performed by Mari Lee and Adelya Nartadjieva, violins, Maren Rothfritz, viola, and Julia Yang, cello.  The three short pieces to which the title refers - Danse, Excentrique and Cantique - were composed only a year after the notorious premiere of Le Sacre du printemps and were in their own way just as revolutionary and iconoclastic as the ballet.  As critic Paul Griffiths has stated:
"Stravinsky’s work, for the first time in the history of the genre, is determinedly not a 'string quartet' but a set of pieces to be played by four strings."
It's obvious from the opening of the first movement that Stravinsky is playing with the expectations of the audience.  Rather than complying with Goethe's description of a string quartet as "four intelligent people conversing among themselves," Danse instead resembles four voices talking inanely to themselves while paying no attention whatsoever to those about them.  Excentrique, whose inspriation Stravinsky is said to have found in the vaudeville routines of an English clown named Little Tich, fully lives up to its name with a series of bizarre musical effects.  Cantique, on the other hand, progresses more smoothly but, its title notwithstanding, it is hardly liturgical in character.  It's worth noting that the titles of the three movements were not given them until 1928 when Stravinsky rearranged them for orchestra in his Quatre études, at which time he also added a fourth movement entitled Madrid.

The next piece was Triskelion (1996), a brass quintet by Bruce Adolphe; it was performed by Nicolee Kuester, French horn, Brian Olson and Brandon Ridenour, trumpets, Oliver Barrett, trombone, and Daniel Schwalbach, bass trombone.  The title of the work is taken from a Greek term defined by Wikipedia as "a motif consisting of a triple spiral exhibiting rotational symmetry."  Though no explanation was provided in the program notes, I would assume the title refers to the symmety of the three movements that make up the piece.  Of these, the second marked "Andante (with a ghostly quality)" is the most interesting and does manage to project, if one listens hard enough, a sense of mystery and otherworldliness.

After intermission, the program concluded with Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1940-1941) for piano (Lee Dionne), clarinet (Yoonah Kim), violin (Rebecca Anderson) and cello (Julia Yang).  Without doubt, few pieces of music have so dramatic an origin as this can boast.  Briefly, Messiaen was captured while serving France during World War II and sent to a POW camp in Poland where he became acquainted with three other prisoners who were also musicians.  The composer then wrote a piece in eight movements that the four could perform together.  Messiaen was obviously limited in his choice of available instruments, but Paul Hindemith had previously composed in 1938 a work for the same combination.  The quartet was actually premiered at the camp - outdoors and in the rain - with both prisoners and guards in attendance, all of whom gave it an enthusiastic reception.  There was, unfortunately, a disappointing sequel to this feel-good story.  The guard, Carl-Albert Brüll, who had contrived to give the musicians rehearsal time and later forged documents for their release, traveled to Paris and attempted to meet with Messiaen after the war had ended but was rebuffed and sent away without even having had an opportunity to see the man for whom he had done so much.  Why Messiaen displayed such ingratitude has never been satisfactorily explained.  Whatever the cause, the composer's boorish behavior has always tainted my appreciation of the piece.

Nevertheless, no matter what its history, the Quatuor is an incredible achievement, especially when one takes into account the conditions in which it was conceived.  In it, Messiaen paid his fellow captives the huge compliment of writing for each of them solo parts that would test the skills of any musician.  The entire work revolves around the three movements that feature these solos (with piano accompaniment) - the Abîme des oiseaux for clarinet, the Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus for cello, and the final moving Louange à l'Immortalité de Jésus for violin that is really the soul of the work.

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