Fort Worth — Theoretical latecomers to the fourth Mimir Chamber Music Festival might have been forgiven if, on arrival, they stopped in confusion to wonder if they'd come to the right place. For the sounds emanating on Tuesday evening from Texas Christian University’s PepsiCo Recital Hall sounded more like an ol’ time hymn sing than the expected erudite piano trio music.
This was artistic director and violinist Curt Thompson’s unusual way of introducing Charles Ives’ Quartet No. 1, subtitled “From the Salvation Army.” Under Thompson’s exuberant conducting, we in the audience sang some of the hymns the revolutionary composer used as a basis for the quartet. This was a terrific idea, but the dark lighting in the hall made it difficult to read the words on the supplied song sheets. Some in the audience, obviously familiar with the hymns, sang out lustily while others mumbled along.
Nonetheless, it was a dramatic way to introduce Ives’ penchant for developing his works from such material. He also frequently included holiday bandstand music and even Stephen Foster songs. American folk music, Ives felt, was a treasure trove that he mined, much like Bartók.
Ives' first movement, we discovered, used the tunes we sang beforehand. One is "The Missionary Hymn" ("From Greenland’s Icy Mountains") and the other is called "Coronation" ("All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name!"). Phrases of other familiar pieces, such as the gospel hymn "Beulah Land," floated here and there throughout the entire quartet.
An aside: This quartet is of interest to musicologists because it turns up again as the third movement of the composer's Symphony No. 4.
The quartet was played by Curt Thompson, Wenhong Luo (viola), Brant Taylor (cello) and violinist Jesse Mills (from the Horszowski Trio, who would perform the two remaining works on the program). They presented an exceptional performance, relishing in Ives’ quirky yet profound music. The fugue in the first movement was especially noticeable for the clarity created by their careful dynamic layering.
After the Ives, the Horszowski Trio of Mills, cellist Raman Ramakrishnan and pianist Rieko Aizawa, more spectacularly realized performances of works written for the same combination: Shostakovich’s Trio Op. 67 and Schumann’s Trio Op. 63.
The Shostakovich trio’s opening effect is the eerie passivity of a wickedly hard-to-play melody that uses only uses artificial harmonics in the cello. This unsettling mood is soon dispersed by a fugal section in the composer’s distinctive rough and tumble style, replete with large interval leaps and dissonant harmonies.
The technical demands of the entire work are spotlighted in the second movement. The considerable abilities of the players were put to the test, and they answered with indomitable alacrity. The players took the very fast and violent scherzo at a breakneck tempo. The challenge is made all the more precarious by the fact that the music never finds a resolution on which to pause, even for a second. Even the last two notes are spit out in a triumphantly “take that!” manner.
Aizawa opened the slow movement with subdued chords in the piano, settling the atmosphere down harmonically from F-sharp minor to a peaceful C-major state. Once the calm was established, Aizawa entered, floating a mournful tune over the piano’s continued chordal tattoo. Ramakrishnan matched the mood when he entered with a mournful descant. The musicians brought the movement to an impassioned climax that crashed under its own weight. The mood never recovers, an effect the musicians achieved by playing sul tasto (lightly bowed over the fingerboard).
The finale returns to flights of impressive virtuosic trials, which the players met in a most impressive manner. Its casting in 5/4 time projects a loping pace as the music barrels ahead like a roller coaster. The writing is reminiscent of fiddlin’ tunes. The players appeared to enjoy the technical challenges, particularly those of the intense Hebraic themes the composer included.
After a much-needed intermission came the Schumann trio, which is more generally known than the other selections on the program. It is a deeply romantic work that often seems to inpire intense performances. This is a specialty of the Horszowski Trio, whether in earlier works or in contemporary neo-romantic incarnations. For the Schumann, they presented a dignified version of the spirit of romanticism found in that work.
The trio played the piece in a wonderfully expressive manner, with all of the rubato kept in an appropriately narrow range. This was especially noticeable in the first movement (marked "Mit Energie und Leidenschaft" and translated as "With Energy and Passion"). Aizawa’s arpeggiated piano accompaniment supported Mills impassioned rendition of the main theme and drove all of the many crescendi towards most satisfying arrivals.
Their approach to this movement set the atmosphere for the entire work.
The second movement is a lively scherzo and the musicians clearly established the 3/4 pulse with a crisp snap to the dotted eighth and 16th rhythmic combination throughout. The slow movement gave the musicians the opportunity to take us on a subtle journey through many moods of related keys as the music moved through them. They began the finale imperceptibly, as an outgrowth of the previous movement, and played the lightly altered first movement material with exceptional clarity. They took the tempo mark of “With Fire” seriously and ended with a flash of repeated notes that earned them a roaring ovation.
It was a masterful program that was only slightly overplayed.