Fort Worth — The Oct. 19 Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth concert had an interesting title: “Which Instrument Matters” — an unanswerable conundrum. Since it contained works for strings and piano, I suppose that the noble tuba, the foundation of the orchestra, is out of the running. I would venture to nominate the composer because without their efforts, there wouldn’t be a concert at all.
But seriously, in chamber music each instrument matters in equal portions. In fact, one player that is even a little bit under the abilities of the others can ruin a performance. Despite the quizzical question, you certainly couldn’t make such a judgment on Saturday afternoon in Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth’s cozy auditorium.
Violinist and Artistic Director Gary Levinson was assisted by several of the CMSFW superior regulars. Violinist Swang Lin is the Associate Concertmaster of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. The French-American cellist Jesús Castro-Balbi is a Professor of Cello at Texas Christian University. Violist Michael Klotz produces a sound on the viola that is, in my experience, unmatched. In addition to touring as a soloist and chamber musician, Klotz is also a dedicated pedagogue. Currently, he is on the faculty of The Heifetz International Music Institute.
The revelation of the day was the impressive performance delivered by the Boston-based pianist Asiya Korepanova, a CMSFW newcomer. The statuesque Russian pianist, with a riot of red hair, immediately proved that she is not only a superb soloist but an exceptional collaborative pianist as well. This is no easy task.
Her dynamic level was always appropriate to the intent of the music. She brought out what was important, even a single chord in one passage, but retreated to a supportive position in such a manner to catch the ear of even the most knowledgeable listener. This program was piano-heavy and so she had the even more difficult role of subtly underwriting the interpretive direction without appearing to do so.
The first half of the program consisted of two contrasting pieces that both date from the early 20th century but hail from very different geographical areas and schools of composition.
The first, and most radical, was Mythes for Violin and Piano, Op. 30, by the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, dating from 1915. This is the composer’s best-known work for violin and one in which he began to solidify his compositional voice. He was exposed to all of the composers of the day, from Wagner to Debussy with some Scriabin tossed in the mix. What came out of this compositional stew was a distillation of all of his influences that underpins the overlay of his native folk music.
The work is cast in three picturesque movements based on three familiar myths: “The Spring of Arethusa,” “Narcissus,” and “The Dryads with Pan.” Szymanowski uses some unusual violinistic and musical effects to illustrate these myths.
In lesser hands, this extremely difficult work can sound chaotic but Levinson and Korepanova used their technical mastery to tame the composer’s foray into 20th century experimentations. While they brought out the work’s revolutionary aspects, they kept one foot firmly rooted in the late romantic style from which it sprang.
The first vignette is about Arethusa, who turned herself into a fountain to escape unwanted amorous advances. Levinson played the opening with all of the passion he could draw from the height of the romantic performance practices. Korepanova matched him with impressive harmonic sweeps up and down the keyboard.
The next myth is about the beautiful youth Narcissus, who rejected the multitudes who helplessly fell in love with him. Nemesis, the goddess of retribution, punished him by making him fall in love with the one love that was unattainable, himself, by showing him his own reflection. Szymanowski gives the violin harmonic tremolo patterns that Levinson made sound like the palpitations of a heart experiencing the overwhelming experience of “first love,” however misplaced. The pair let the work die away the end — as did Narcissus.
“Dryads” opens with Levinson playing quartertones wavering like some cosmic disturbance or buzzing insects. His playing of the frequently used harmonics was reminiscent of the sounds of Pan’s pipes.
The second work the duo played was more straightforward: Sergei Prokofiev’s Five Melodies for Violin and Piano, Op. 35. It was originally written in 1920 as a set of wordless melodies, which is the French word for “song.” This was written at a time when the Russian composer was in self-exile after the October Revolution and living in, of all places, sunny Los Angeles.
As composers frequently do when the original version is not being performed, in 1925 he transmogrified them into five miniatures for violin and piano. Even though they started out as vocalises, Prokofiev’s new version is definitely music for the violin. He used most of the instrument’s arsenal, in addition to its ability to “sing” with techniques such as pizzicato passages, double stops, and even harmonics.
Levinson and Korepanova opened the set gently with a simple singing melody in the violin and a humble but expressive use of the piano. They let it build and retreat naturally without added comments. As the piece progressed, the pair always kept the vocal origin of the work present, even during fast and contrasting choppy passages. At the end of the last piece, the pair completed the composer’s cycle by letting it end as gently as the first one began.
The concert ended with a large work, Ernst von Dohnányi’s Piano Quintet No. 2, Op. 26. While not as spectacular as his first work in the genre, this one is a more mature effort, yet still has the composer’s trademark spectacular piano writing and more than its share of “big moments.”
It is a little complicated to say where the composer was born because of the political turmoil at the turn of the century. Technically, Dohnányi was born in Pozsony, Kingdom of Hungary, and Austria-Hungary, which today is Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. The composer’s defiant rescue and defense of Jewish musicians during Hitler’s reign of terror caused him to leave his native land. When he arrived in America, starting in 1944, Dohnányi taught for ten years in the Florida State University’s School of Music in Tallahassee. In addition to the accomplishments of his students, his legacy continues to affect the world of music by the distinguished career of his grandson, the conductor Christoph von Dohnányi.
His music has fallen off of programs these days, but not because of its quality, as this quintet proves. As do works like his marvelously witty piano concerto Variations on a Nursery Tune, with its subtitle: “For the enjoyment of humorous people and for the annoyance of others.” The Wagnerian “dark and stormy night” introduction is a masterpiece of musical humor and technical brilliance.
This second quintet was written in 1919, a crucial time for classical music as it tried to extricate itself from the cul-de-sac of the over-ripe, ultra-chromatic music of Richard Strauss and early Schoenberg. 1919 saw Stravinsky draw a suite from The Firebird because of its overwhelming popularity, and the Szymanowski work came four years before that.
Part of the reason Dohnányi’s music was/is ignored is that he belonged to a school of composition that thought that there was a lot to be said in late romantic language if one took a fresh approach to it. This earned him the moniker of “old-fashioned” in the face of works of serialism and modernist experimentation.
This performance of the quintet fully displayed the composer’s validity for today’s concert halls and there was buzz in the departing audience about exploring more of his works and a request for hearing the first quintet sometime in the future. Since Dohnányi was a concert pianist himself, this quintet uses the piano prominently all the way through. You could even call it something of a concerto for piano and string quartet, except all of the marvelous string writing that evens things up.
Korepanova came to the fore in the performance of this piece. While still maintaining the rank of collaborative pianist, she turned in a concerto-worthy performance that stunned the audience. Dohnányi also gave a lot of solo music to the viola and we were fortunate to have the services of Klotz. Every solo turn he played amazed us with the richness of the almost cello-like sound he is able to produce.
All of the players did a fine job bringing this work to life. The violin playing of Levinson and Lin made for a fine duo and Castro-Balbi’s cello made an equally fine partner with Klotz’s viola. Collectively, this is a fine quintet worthy of reassembling.
But it also may have created a problem. He enjoyment of playing together caused some understandable over-exuberance, which led to a performance that reached the maximum dynamic level way too frequently and stayed there much too long. More dynamic variety would have exposed more of the inner workings of composer’s masterpiece.
That quibble aside, this was a terrific performance: excitingly programmed and excellently performed.