Friday, November 30, 2018

Juilliard Chamber Music: Beethoven, Kim and Mendelssohn

Earlier this week I went to hear the latest instsllment of Juilliard's Wednesdays at One series at Alice Tully Hall.  On this occasion the program was devoted to chamber music, specifically string quartets.

The recital began with a performance of the first movement of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59, No. 3 (1806), the third of the "Razumovsky Quartets."  I have to admit that I always find it annoying when musicians elect to perform only a single movement of a given work.  In music, as in any other art, a creation must be taken as a whole if it is to be properly appreciated.  Presenting individual movements as stand alone pieces necessarily gives listeners an incomplete and sometimes distorted understanding of the composer's intentions.  If three complete works cannot be accommodated in a single program it would be far better, in my opinion, to perform only two and end the recital a few minutes early.

The next work was the world premiere of a string quartet entitled Shadowplay by Sunbin Kim, winner of the 2017 Gena Raps String Quartet Prize.  This was a highly interesting single movement atonal work, approximately 20 minutes in length, whose music often had a piercing quality in the upper registers.  The composer was present at the performance and attempted to say a few words to introduce the piece.  Unfortunately, he was not given a microphone and his remarks were largely inaudible.  According to his website, Sunbin Kim, who is also a pianist, is a graduate of Bard and is currently enrolled as an MM candidate at Juilliard.

Both the above pieces were performed by the Azure Quartet who were participants in the 2017-2018 Honors Chamber Music Program; the ensemble consists of K.J. McDonald and Brenden Zak, violins, Hannah Geisinger, viola, and Yifei Li, cello.

The final work on the program was Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80 (1847).  To me, this 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 piece was performed by the Abeo Quartet consisting of Ludvig Gudim and Nijoma Grevious, violins, James Kang, viola, and Drew Cone, cello.  They are currently participating in the 2018-2019 Honors Chamber Music Program.

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