Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Juilliard Chamber Music: Dvořák, Schumann and Mendelssohn

The second chamber music recital I attended last Sunday at Morse Hall was the 2:30 p.m. I might not have stayed if the program had not been so intriguing. It not only included another major work by Schumann but also masterpieces by Dvořák and Mendelssohn.

The recital commenced with a performance of Dvořák's Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat major, Op. 87 (1889). The piece was written fourteen years after the Quartet in D major and might never have been completed at all if the composer had not been constantly goaded by his publisher Simrock. Surprisingly, it's not one of Dvořák's more popular chamber works even though it's a wonderful statement of the Romantic ethos he had acquired from Brahms. The second movement lento has a sweet haunting character while the third movement contains elements of the East European folk tunes Dvořák would soon develop more fully in his much better known "Dumky" Trio. In contrast, the final movement, almost symphonic in its sound, is so powerful it fairly sweeps the listener along to the work's conclusion. 

The musicians were Yue Qian, violin, Ao Peng, viola, Songhee Lee, cello, and Yijia Wang, piano; their coach was Timothy Eddy.

The next work was Schumann's Sonata for Violin and Piano in A minor, Op. 105 (1851). After having heard Schumann's two violin sonatas performed many years ago at Carnegie Hall by Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich, I gained a new appreciation of these pieces and have since come to consider them among the most underrated of the composer's chamber works. One reason they may not be held in greater esteem is that they were written in a period of turmoil in Schumann's life as he began to experience the first symptoms of the mental breakdown that would lead him to attempt suicide in 1854. At the time the sonata was written, Schumann was music director of the Düsseldorf Orchestra. This proved to be one of the more frustrating episodes of his career. No matter how skilled a composer he may have been, he was utterly lacking in ability as a conductor. As a result, he retreated as much as possible from his orchestral duties and concentrated instead on forming chamber ensembles with the best of the orchestra's musicians. He himself did not care very much for the A-minor sonata and later claimed: "I did not like the first Sonata for Violin and Piano; so I wrote a second one [the Op. 121], which I hope has turned out better." Musicologists took him at his word and paid little attention to the piece, seeing in it only evidence of Schumann's impending mental collapse. But the Op. 105 is actually an extremely absorbing and innovative work that deserves to be heard more often.

The sonata was performed by violinist Kyung Ji Min and pianist Kate Liu; they were coached by Earl Carlyss and Jonathan Feldman.

After a short intermission, the program closed with a performance of Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80 (1847). I had just heard this work a few weeks ago at a Wednesdays at One recital at Alice Tully and had posted the following thoughts on the music: 
To me, this [the quartet] is the most fascinating of Mendelssohn's works in any genre. For the most part, his compositions are the refined and accomplished pieces, filled with light and engaging touches, one would expect of so cultured and cerebral a composer. While undoubtedly works of genius, they are so utterly proper and carefully thought out that one sometimes feels the composer is wearing a mask behind which he hides his real feelings and emotions. Not so, however, in the present work. Titled "A Requiem for Fanny," the quartet was written immediately aftet the death of Mendelssohn's beloved sister, a tragedy that left the composer devastated. It is nothing less than the final testament - Mendelssohn himself would be dead within two months after having completed it - of a highly cultivated man who has suddenly seen his carefully constructed world come crashing down around him. Not only is it written in the dark F minor key, but its accentuations and tempos (some of which were later adapted by Shostakovich in his own F minor quartet, the No. 11) are filled with a sense of anxiety and dread that makes the work sound curiously modern. One can hear the furious racing of the composer's heart as he confronts his own mortality. Properly performed, the Op. 80 is a truly harrowing piece, a glimpse of a soul robbed of all its certainties and staring death in the face. 
The performers were Mitsuru Yonezaki and Sophia Steger, violins, Frida Oliver, viola, and Emily Mantone, cello; their coach was Carol Rodland.

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