On Wednesday evening the ACJW Ensemble gave its last performance of the season at Juilliard, and a listener could not have asked for a more interesting program than one which featured well known works by Bartók, Hindemith and Brahms.
The first piece was Bartók's String Quartet No. 2, Sz. 67 (1915-1917) composed eight years after the Quartet No. 1 (1909). Bartók spent the interval between the two pieces recording ethnic folk songs on location throughout Europe and North Africa. This self imposed task included a brief visit to Algeria in 1913 where the composer was exposed to the Arab music whose influence can be heard in the quartet itself. It is ironic that a work that sounds so "modern" to today's audiences should be based on folk traditions that extend back through several centuries. The quartet's final movement is a desolate lento, characterized by Kodály as "suffering," that hearkens back not only to the opening movement of the Quartet No. 1 but also to the work of Strauss and the Romantics whose influence over him Bartók was on the verge of leaving behind as he progressed toward his more mature compositions. The movement can also be seen as a meditation on the horror of the world war then raging about the composer and curtailing his ethnographic travels.
Next was Hindemith's Kammermusik No. 1, Op. 24 (1922) for flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, accordion, piano, string quintet and percussion. (The accordion part was originally written for harmonium but was changed at a later date by Hindemith when the particular harmonium he had in mind became unavailable.) This was an extremely enjoyable piece of the sort one likes to imagine might have once been heard during the 1920's at a seedy Berlin dance hall. The sometimes raucous music contained a melange of styles, from jazz to foxtrot, whose incongruity with one another was made all the more striking by the idiosyncratic choice of instruments on which they were played. According to the program notes, Hindemith, perhaps with tongue in cheek, wrote in 1938:
"One wonders why people made such a fuss about this piece at the time. It is not at all badly written, and there is nothing, apart from a few harmonic and melodic teething troubles, to upset innocent souls."
It is easy to understand why Hindemith's works might have caused some discomfort among the Nazi hierarchy who eventually labeled them "degenerate" and forced the composer to flee to Switzerland. The fact that Hindemith's wife had Jewish ancestry probably did not help matters.
Following the intermission, the Ensemble closed the program with Brahms' Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115 (1891). This is a late work and among several chamber pieces that Brahms wrote for clarinet after he had already announced his retirement as a composer. It was in fact the playing of clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld that inspired Brahms to once again begin writing chamber music. Although the quintet has often been referred to as "autumnal" - and it certainly does sustain a mellow mood throughout its length - I do not myself hear in it any sort of valediction. It seems instead a major work by a composer then at the height of his powers.
The musicians of the ACJW will soon be graduating from the two-year program and moving on to their individual careers. Having attended their recitals at both Paul Hall and Weill Recital Hall, I've seen more performances by them than by any other group this season. I've been consistently impressed by their high level of their musicianship and would rank their virtuosity alongside that of much more established chamber ensembles. They deserve every success, and I hope to see more of them in coming seasons.