Fort Worth — When violinist Curt Thompson, the Founder/Artistic Director of the Mimir Chamber Music Festival, left his position at Texas Christian University to take a job in Australia, there was some despair about the future of this summer favorite. If Thursday night’s opening concert in PepsiCo Hall is any indication, the festival is very much alive and up to its usual high standards.
Like the magic in Frosty’s top hat that brings the snowman to life, there is some magic in Mimir that allows ad hoc musicians to assemble each summer and perform like a touring group that performs together every day. In Norse mythology, Odin carried Mimir’s severed head around in a bag because of the wisdom the relic could impart. Maybe Thompson has it backstage as a talisman for perfect ensemble playing.
Whatever the reason, violinists Curt Thompson and Stephen Rose, violist Kirsten Docter and cellist Brant Taylor delivered nearly flawless performances of both quartets on the program. The two pieces were completely different and the four adjusted their sound and playing style to suit the demands of both composers. Both the B-flat major Quartet by Brahms (Op. 67) and the modernist second quartet by the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski require a virtuoso string quartet whose members have a double dose of ESP—Extra Sensory Perception among Exceptionally Sensitive Performers. This is the miracle of Mimir. Professional string quartets spend years working towards this connection and the resultant ensemble that is bestowed here every summer.
The Szymanowski is a tightly packed 20 minutes of intense music and the break between the three movements is a welcome breather. The opening is deceptive in that it is gossamer and barely audible—fuzzy patterns in the inner voices offset a super-quiet lonesome melody high in the violin and cello. It was played so quietly that we were all on the edge of our seats with anticipation. The final pure triad that ended the first movement was sheer bliss.
Although we didn’t know it at the time, this spooky and emotional approach to the first movement set up the shocking chords that exploded at the beginning of the second movement. The right-on intonation of the players mellowed the dissonance of the close chromatic chords and the skill of the quartet gave life to all of the composer’s special effects (such as the slide to a pizzicato than ends the movement) and original combinations of the instruments.
The last movement is a complex double fugue that is a compositional tour de force. This one is especially hard to follow in places because it is so slow moving that it almost sound homophonic. Such was not the case in this performance. All of the voices in all their permutations were clearly heard and the brilliance of Szymanowski’s counterpoint was cleanly displayed for all of us to admire.
Moment of Geek: This Szymanowski quartet was written right after he completed his opera King Roger, an event that revitalized his spirits that were dragged down by depression. By the way, this opera is receiving some renewed attention and had a triumphant production in Santa Fe last summer. My review is here.
This second quartet signaled the start of a new style in his musical voice—a combination of modernist harmonies, a neo-classical approach borrowed form Stravinsky and the inclusion of Polish folk music from the southern region of the Tatra. His fourth symphony and second violin concerto, which followed, shows this same influence. We can only dream about where he would have gone from there in this strikingly original voice because his health, mental state and compositional output all slowly declined.
Before moving on, mention must be made about the consummate ability of violist Kristen Docter. She is a master of this much-maligned instrument and her solos were absolutely spellbinding. How about we hear her play a sonata sometime in the future?
The performance of the Brahms was a different matter musically and stylistically. Audiences are far more familiar with the Brahms “sound” than Szymanowski's and expect a heaping dose of gravitas when Brahms is played. Whether realized or subliminal, this expectation almost always leads to overplaying and arriving at the loudest dynamic way too soon. This is what happened in this case. The quartet was at fortissimo (top volume) in the first movement and went up from there. While not exhaustive, a cursory glance over the score revealed nothing louder than a forte (OK, an occasional più forte) from beginning to end. Even the big slowly paced crescendi only ended up a forte.
Another familiar complaint is that the players are always so serious and never seem to be having any fun—even when the music is fun. Such was the case in this performance. This quartet is full of humor, from the purposely misplaced accents in the first movement to the folk tune in the second (that is a close copy of a well-known children’s song). The serious approach should be saved for the last two movements.
This review has saved the best for last. The program opened with a definitive reading of Edvard Grieg’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in C minor, Op. 45. Nathan Cole played it on the Stradivarius that was once owned by Jack Benny and the sound was remarkably like a viola. Cole accentuated its dark rich sound by keeping much of his playing on the lower strings when possible. Even the high E string had a more burnished sound than usual, although it didn’t appear to sacrifice brilliance to get it. Just beautiful!
Also beautiful was his intonation. He was always dead center, which is the mark of a great artist.
Another moment of Geek: Pitch is only absolute on the piano. In reality, the pitch has an inside and an outside edge—like skies or ice skates. Instrumentalists and singers have to constantly adjust the pitch to be “in tune” depending on the function of the note in a chord. For example, the third in a major chord has to be slightly higher and, conversely, slightly lower in a minor chord. Most performers do this instinctively, but Cole was so consistently on the right side of the pitch that some intellectualization had to be part of the picture.
Also dead-on were his tempi. There was always a sense of forward motion but he never rushed (a fine line to walk). Cole used lots of vibrato throughout which added to the romantic feel of the sonata, although it might not be to everyone’s taste. This was especially true in expressing the melancholy sentimentality of the second movement.
Cole had an able partner in the collaborative pianist John Novacek. Since Grieg was a pianist, it is odd that he didn’t make the piano a truly equal partner, like we find in the best sonatas. Still, Grieg gave Novacek lots to do and even some virtuoso octave passages to demonstrate his technical mastery.
Even though the lid to the concert grand was all the way up, Novacek never once covered the violinist—or even came close. He was always at the correct dynamic level. He also underlined every important melodic line. He matched Cole’s expression when he had echoes of the violin part and brought them out by rising exactly to Cole’s level and not a decibel more. Sometimes this was only for a single note.
This was an exceptional performance by two great artists of an unjustly ignored piece. What more could you want? Grieg is out of favor these days for some unfathomable reason, but hearing a work like this makes you want to hear more of his oeuvre.
» Mimir Artists concerts continue July 8 and 11 at 7:30 p.m. at TCU’s PepsiCo Recital Hall. Mimir Emerging Artists concerts (free and open to the public) will be July 7 and 10 at 7:30 p.m. in PepsiCo Recital Hall