The third of the ChamberFest recitals I attended this season was a Wednesdays at One matinee at Alice Tully Hall that lasted only an hour but featured two intriguing works that, though notable, are not often heard, one by Stravinsky and the other by George Enescu.
The program opened with Stravinsky's Octet (1923) for winds. Few composers influenced the course of twentieth century music more profoundly than Stravinsky. While not many would argue this, most would point to Le sacre du printemps, forever immortalized in musical history by the riot that accompanied its premiere in Paris in 1913, as confirmation. While the ballet was undeniably revolutionary in its radical exploration of dissonance and rhythm, Stravinsky's subsequent move to neo-Classicism could be considered to have had even greater repercussions. Neo-Classicism was rooted in the aversion to German culture, most especially the Romanticism that infused Wagner's music, during and after World War I. To replace German Romanticism and the programmatic music that characterized it, Stravinsky looked back to the Classical and Baroque periods. Already in 1920 he had accepted a commission from the Ballets Russes to rewrite in modernist form music then attributed to Pergolesi for Pulcinella. In exploring older musical forms Stravinsky also reverted to the cold precision that underlay such devices as fugue and counterpoint. This even extended to the choice of instrumentation to be employed in scoring a work. That Stravinsky did this deliberately was explicitly stated a 1924 article in The Arts in which he wrote of the Octet:
"Wind instruments seem to me to be more apt to render a certain rigidity of the form I had in mind than other instruments... which are less cold and more vague... My Octuor is not an 'emotive' work but a musical composition based on objective elements which are sufficient in themselves."
If then the Octet strikes the listener as cold and lacking in emotional appeal, this was not accidental but carefully calculated on the part of the composer. In this he influenced any number of composers who came after him.
The musicians on this piece were Viola Chan, flute, Kamalia Freyling, clarinet, Steven Palacio and Emmali Ouderkirk, bassoons, Lasse Bjerknaes-Jacobsen and Kevin Quill, trumpets, and Ricardo Pedrares-Patino and Aaron Albert, trombones; their coach was Raymond Mase.
The second piece on yesterday's program could not have been more dissimilar from the first. Although Enescu's work contained the same number of instruments as did Stravinsky's, this time the ensemble was comprised entirely of strings rather than winds. In the Octet in C major, Op. 7 (1900) two full string quartets played side by side, a combination previously employed most famously by Mendelssohn in his own youthful Op. 20. But this was hardly the biggest difference between the two present pieces. The Op. 7, composed roughly a quarter century before Stravinsky's Octet, was in striking contrast to the latter in its passionate emotionalism. One could say it was precisely the type of work Stravinsky set himself against in his neo-Classical period. Here was lush fin de siècle Romanticism made only more ardent by the youth of the composer at the time he wrote it. This could be heard most clearly in the slow third movement marked lentement. The use of French markings was also an indication that his sources of inspiration were more French than German - the Octet is dedicated to André Gedalge, Eenescu's teacher at the Paris Conservatory - even if the second movement was cast in the form of fugue. The Romantic roots of the piece were emphasized by Enescu himself when, in a 1950 preface to a new edition of the score, he described the entire piece as a single movement in sonata-allegro form, a concept that had previously been explored by Liszt and other prominent Romantic composers.
The work was performed by Harriet Langley, Emma Frucht, George Meyer, and Amelia Dietrich, violins, Jasper Snow and Emily Liu, violas, Edvard Pogossian and Clare Bradford, cellos; they were coached by Don Weilerstein and David Finckel.