Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Jupiter Players Perform Mozart, Gernsheim and Schumann

On Monday afternoon I went for the first time in almost a year to Good Shepherd Church on West 66th Street to hear a chamber music recital given by the Jupiter Players.  The two hour performance featured works by Mozart, Friedrich Gernsheim and Schumann that showcased the talents of the two guest artists, Miriam Fried, violin, and Drew Petersen, piano.

The program opened with Mozart's Piano Trio in E-flat major, K. 498 (1786) for piano, clarinet and viola.  Long after Mozart's death, the work was given the nickname Kegelstatt by the music's publishers who most likely confused it with the K. 487 composed a month earlier on whose score Mozart had noted that it had been written while playing skittles.  Since it made for a good story, the unlikely name stuck.  Far more important is the work's place to the clarinet repertoire.  At the time, the clarinet was a relatively new instrument.  Haydn only began to make use of it in 1793 when he composed his Symphony No. 99 in preparation for his second London tour.  Probably he viewed it as a novelty that would delight English audiences.  The clarinet might not have made so prominent an appearance in Mozart's later work if it hadn't been for his friendship with Anton Stadler, a dissolute character who was nevertheless the world's first true clarinet virtuoso performing on an instrument of his own design.  As it is, the trio is the first work written for this particular combination of instruments.  The occasion was a private performance at the home of Mozart's friend Nikolaus von Jacquin to whose daughter Mozart had dedicated the work.  The musicians were most likely said daughter Franziska Jacquin on piano, Stadler playing clarinet and Mozart himself performing the viola part.  The composer did not shortchange his friends.  This is one of his finest chamber works and contains several interesting features from the highly unusual use of an andante as an opening movement to the seven part rondo that closes the piece.

The next work was Gernsheim's String Quartet No. 2 in A minor Op. 31 (1875).  In the mid-nineteenth century Gernsheim was a highly respected composer and educator as well as a conductor and concert pianist.  Unfortunately, his Jewish ancestry as well as the occasional choice of Jewish subject matter in his music (e.g., the Symphony No. 3 inspired the Biblical account of Miriam) earned the posthumous ire of the Nazis in their campaign against entartete musik.  His works were banned and all references to him removed from German musical histories.  Like much of Gernsheim's music, the present quartet clearly shows the influence of Brahms but it nevertheless possesses its own highly original and distinctive style.  Gernsheim was a brilliant composer and it would be a shame if the obscurity to which the Nazis condemned his works were allowed to continue.

After intermission, the program closed with a performance of Schumann's Piano Trio No. 2 in F Major Op. 80 (1847).  Both the composser's first two piano trios were composed some five years after his famous Piano Quintet and Piano Quartet and it may have been that he wanted to experiment further with the combination of keyboard and strings.  The Op. 80, in particular, is a self-consciously innovative work characterized by unusual shifts in key and dense contrapuntal writing in both the first and second movements.  At the same time the quotation from his song Dein Bildnis wunderselig, the second of his Liederkreis, Op 39, in the first movement as well as the long lyrical melody that opens the second slow movement combine to make the music much more appealing to the audience than one would expect.  Although when writing for piano and strings Schumann normally gave much greater weight to the piano part, he here surprises the listener by having the strings alone announce the work's opening theme.

This was probably the best program the Jupiter Players have offered in quite some time.  The musicianship of both guest artists and ensemble players was of the highest order.

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