Thursday, November 8, 2018

Omega Ensemble Performs Beethoven, Schumann and Ravel

It was a madhouse on the Upper West Side on Sunday afternoon as runners from the New York City Marathon and the families and friends who had come to cheer them on thronged the streets and avenues.  Since many streets had already been closed off due to security concerns, traffic was at an absolute standstill.  In spite of these hectic conditions a loyal group of classical music lovers somehow managed to make their way to Christ & St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street to hear a chamber music recital given by the Omega Ensemble.

The first musician to take the stage was "Next Generation Artist" Astra Phoon, a ten-year old prodigy who proceeded to dazzle the audience with performances first of Fabel, No. 6 of Schumann's Fantasiestücke, Op. 12 (1837) and then of Liszt's Au Bord d'une source, though the program failed to note which of the three versions was used.

The recital proper opened with Ravel's Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major (1923-1927). As the numbering would indicate, this was the composer's second attempt at a violin sonata. The No. 1 in A major, however, was a student piece from 1897 of which only the first movement was completed. The No. 2 was an entirely different matter. This is one of the most intriguing violin sonatas in the twentieth century repertoire, and I've always been puzzled that it is not performed more often in recital. Here Ravel is masterful and inventive while purporting to demonstrate the basic incompatability of the violin and piano. This can be seen most clearly in the first movement where the two instruments are not so much playing with one another as against one another. But it is the second movement marked Blues - Moderato that is the most interesting. Ravel had encountered the blues first hand in Paris when W.C. Handy had toured there, but the French composer adapted it through his own sensibilities so that it became, in his own words, "French music" distinct from its sources. The work was performed by violinist Kevin Zhu and pianist David Fung.

The next work was another Schumann "fantasy piece," Drei Fantasiestücke, Op. 73 (1849), originally written for clarinet and piano but here arranged for cello and piano. Though Schumann was the first to coin the term fantasiestücke, the concept of fantasy was at the heart of the Romantic movement; its origins can in fact be traced back to the stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann. The present piece fits the term very well. The first two movements are for the most part dreamy and ethereal but the third, marked Rasch und mit Feuer ("Fast and with Fire") spins off crazily as if the musicians were suddenly possessed. One thinks, of course, of Schumann's breakdown five years later and wonders if there is in this music a premonition of that calamity. On this piece pianist David Fung was joined by cellist Gabriel Cabezas.

After a brief intermission, all three musicians returned to the stage for a performance of Beethoven's Piano Trio in E-flat major, Op. 70, No. 2 (1808). Not nearly as famous as its companion piece, the "Ghost," the No. 2 is nevertheless a major work. At the time he wrote it, Beethoven was at the height of his powers and so confident in his abilities that he no longer worried himself over comparisons to his predecessors. He could instead afford to pay an appreciative tribute in this work to his old teacher Haydn. The trio's opening, for example, in its use of a slow introduction followed by a lively allegro hearkens back to Haydn's Symphony No. 103, the "Drumroll," also in the key of E-flat major, while the double variation in the second movement allegretto mimics the use of that same device in the symphony's second movement andante. But Beethoven then proceeds to dazzle his audience with audacious innovations that demonstrate he owes nothing to anyone. This can best be seen in the recapitulation of the opening movement's first theme, introduced in D-flat major by the cello only to be immediately taken up by the piano in E-flat major, a correction so swift and drastic it seems almost a mistake.  But it is when comparing the present piece to Haydn's own piano trios that the differences between the two composers can best be appreciated. Although Haydn composed some forty-five trios, many of them of the highest quality, he invariably assigned the most importance to the piano part and used the strings primarily as accompaniment. In so doing, he was following the tradition of the Baroque trio sonata, in which one or two instruments are given prominence as "soloists" while the others, generally harpsichord and cello, are used as continuo. In contrast, Beethoven here gives all three instruments major roles in working out his musical ideas. As a result, this work is necessarily more complex and better balanced than the trios of Haydn. The interaction among the three instruments imbues the trio with greater depths of expression than would otherwise be possible.

The Omega Ensemble has been in existence since the 1970's and consistently provides a high level of musicianship at its performances.  Sunday afternoon's recital was no exception.

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