Fort Worth — Ever heard of the Classical-era composer Chevalier de Saint-Georges? Drawing a blank? An excellently written string quartet of his opened the recent online concert presented by the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth.
In my annual rereading of at least one music history book, I am always amazed at the number of composers whose music did not survive, so it is not really a surprise to find another one. However, Chevalier de Saint-Georges deserves much more than a passing mention. Not only was he the toast of Paris, gathering fame as a remarkable fencer, composer, virtuoso violinist, the conductor of the leading Parisian orchestra, and favorite of both Marie Antoinette and President John Adams, but he is the first known classical composer of African heritage. Some sources refer to him as “the black Mozart.”
His father, Joseph Bologne, came from the French colony of Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, and Bolonge’s wife’s 16-year-old African slave (of Senegalese origin) was Saint-George’s mother. His father accepted him into the family and gave him the family name.
The other composer on the program is also only remembered for something other than his music. Frank Bridge’s fame comes from being the teacher of Benjamin Britten. Bridge was not known as a teacher and Britten appears to be his only protégé.
On this program, we heard Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ String Quartet No. 5 and what a delightful piece it is! It was given a solid performance by an ensemble of outstanding players: violinists Gary Levinson and Aaron Boyd, violist Dmitry Kustanovich, cellist Allan Steele, and collaborative pianist Michael Bukhman.
Mozart and Haydn were at the top of their game when Saint-George wrote this early work. In fact, both of those musical giants were still alive when Saint-George wrote a set of string quartets. They are early works bearing the title of Op. 1. The present work is No. 5 of the set and it is generally thought to be the best of them.
Thus, the CMSFW ensemble approached the two-movement work with an eye to performance practices from the Classical era. Using a fast and minimal vibrato, as well as compatible bowing, the influence of Haydn is apparent.
The ensemble began the opening movement with a burst of energy that they maintained throughout. Even in the slower passages, the energy level felt restrained and ready to reassert itself. While the first violin is more important, the other players are not just accompaniment. Each gets a chance to shine and thematic materials are tossed around among them. The ensemble kept the energy going throughout the final movement, a rondo. However, while still faithful to the music and to the practices of the era, some variation on how they presented the rondo theme each time it occurred would have added some interest.
The final work on the program was completely different. It is a masterpiece of the post-Romantic era, lush, overflowing with gorgeous music, complexity, and a great technical challenge for all of the players. After hearing it with this superb ensemble, with the addition of pianist Michael Bukhman, it’s hard not to wonder why it is not heard more often.
From the very first notes, the ensemble banished all thought of the pristine Classical era they demonstrated so ably in the Saint-George offering. In complete contrast, they imbrued Bridge’s ultra-romantic quintet with a darker sound, more modern bowing, a luxuriant vibrato, some slides between notes, an overlay of rubato, and amazing technical mastery.
Considering the complexity of the music and profusion of fortissimo passages, the ensemble achieved some remarkable clarity so that all five voices were easily discernible. Balance between the five voices was exceptional, considering that the concert was miked for broadcast.
Occasionally the piano was too prominent, which could have been due to the placement of the microphones. However, there were passages in which Bukhman’s left hand was too heavy when offering accompaniment to the right. But this is a small quibble. Bukhman played this famously difficult music with eloquence and sure technique. His excellent use of finger legato was especially noticeable throughout.
Each of the string instruments had their moment in the sun and displayed an equally rich sound as the melodic material was handed off from one to the other. Dynamics were carefully layered so that there was plenty of oomph remaining to make musical high points thrilling. Tempi were right on the spot and in line with the overall structure of the entire work. Often, the last movement is played too fast. Here it was quick, but not overly fast.