NOVA Chamber Series: Brahms and the British Imagination @ Libby Gardner 11.18

Posted November 30, 2012 in
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Photo: Mikel Covey

Johannes Brahms (1833-97)
Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor, opus 38
Allegro non troppo
Allegretto quasi menuetto
Heather Conner piano, John Eckstein cello

Arthur Bliss (1891-1975)
Quintet for Oboe and String Quartet
Assai sostenuto - Allegro assai agitato
Andante con moto
James Hall oboe, Yuki MacQueen, Stephanie Cathcart violins, Carl Johansen viola, and John Eckstein cello.

Brian Ferneyhough (b. 1941)
Coloratura for Oboe and Piano
James Hall oboe, Jason Hardink piano

Johannes Brahms
Piano Trio in B Major, opus 8
Allegro con brio
Scherzo: Allegro molto
Yuki MacQueen violin, John Eckstein cello, Heather Conner piano

The night’s concert featured music written by young composers at the beginnings of their careers, which was misunderstood by their contemporary critics, but which have become, over time, respected additions to the cannon. Titled "Brahms and the British Imagination" on the glossy new Nova web page, it was an essay in favor of Brahms, and against Twentieth Century musical narrative.

Brahms’ “Cello Sonata in E minor op 38.” is one of those pieces which can be played for a friend or just put on with company around and people will ask, “What is that?, I like it.” It is just a charismatic piece. As played by John Eckstein (cello) and Heather Conner (piano) it was diplomatic in conversation, but the two instruments were approaching the piece with very different politeness and intensities. The Cello could be called fastidious, and even second guessed, but not passionate and not dynamic. I admired the cello playing, in its instructive line through the piece, and the total effect was, for me, quite a pleasure, but a perverse one perhaps. The piano part sounded bravura and was played loudly.

The Brahms’ “Cello Sonata,” it turns out, was written with the title “Sonata for Piano and Cello,” and he intended the cello to be an equal and sometimes a subservient to the piano, and not the other way. At one of its first performances, Brahms himself played the piano and the amateur cellist and friend Josef Gansbacher playing said he couldn't hear himself, and Brahms said "lucky for you, too." When it was submitted for publication, an initial rejection was accompanied with a letter inaccurately and ironically describing it: "As far as both instruments are concerned, it is not difficult to play."

The contemporary reaction to the Brahms Cello Sonata, as Jason Hardink's notes suggest, was that it was old fashioned, as it echoes the lyricism of Schubert, the sonata structure of Beethoven, and the counterpoint of Bach. What his critics miss is his forward looking vision of the modern, a modernity which recalls and navigates the great music of the past, like that of the neoclassical and neo baroque movements of the 1920s and ’30s.

Arthur Bliss’ “Quintet for Oboe and String Quartet” was a second place, second piece, for me, at least. The tonal quality of the oboe is curiously string-like, or so I found, not being able to see the oboist, James Hall. I felt as though I were listening to a slightly reedy string quintet. The first movement, “Assai sostenuto - Allegro assai agitato” was wholly modern. The piece seemed to me like an anemone or a lush submarine plant being buffeted by wash and bubbles. Homages to the modern included a melody which sounded counterintuitive and conclusions left off key and rhythmically short. The second movement, “Andante con moto,” hung sinuously in the air, with long, North African sounding themes drawn out between the instruments, and distinctly exotic melodies bobbed and lingered pleasingly. The last movement, “Vivace,” chases off with aggravation in a town square and ends with aggravation in a taxi, and then aggravation alone in a room looking out, and then aggravation running from a crowd, and finally, aggravation at one’s own defeat. Finally, a particular shout out to the violist Carl Johansen, whose tone and phrasing were noticeably superb, his supporting presence in this piece was itself a treat.

The “Quintet” was written in 1927, a time when Bliss was not popular with the British public, and even that leading light of British classical music, Elgar, thought his music was "disconcertingly modern." Bliss' ambiguous harmonic language, says Hardink's notes, is indebted to French impressionism, Stravinsky's ballets and Bartok's early string quartets––though this piece transcends these influences.

Englishman Brian Ferneyhough is a living composer and is currently a professor of composition at Stanford. He is one of the primary theorists of the "New Complexity" movement, which Wikipedia describes as music characterized by the extensive use of irregular nested rhythmic tuplets and highly complex notation. His piece for piano and oboe, “Coloratura (1966),” an early and somewhat less ambitious piece than his later work, was rejected when submitted to the British Society for the Promotion of New Music with the suggestion that the oboe be changed to clarinet. The concert notes call it an amazing work which simultaneously engages a new modernist aesthetic while conjuring an exotic, ancient sound world that plays off images of medieval shawms and snake charmers. A version is available for audition on YouTube.

Live, it is a narrative-less feeling item, dense and full of strategy, or so one would guess from the super-intense expressions of oboist James Hall and pianist Jason Hardink. One could almost imagine that there was a text not yet seen which they were furiously fighting to get right in real time. I don't mean a put down, but as an observation of how in real time, moment by moment ad hoc seemed the music on first hearing this piece. Which I suppose means that it was a success. It certainly was breathtaking, if only because it was full of unfulfilled cues, that a breath might be appropriate. I should like to see it again, maybe twice. I bet I missed a lot.

Brahms’ “Trio in B major, Op. 8” is unique among Brahms works. It was the first chamber music he published. It arrived as a large, discursively autobiographical piece, with a particular emphasis on Robert Schumann's suicide attempt in the last movement. Late in his life, when his publisher offered Brahms the opportunity to rewrite any of his pieces, he rewrote this one quite extensively, ditching the various and youthful parts for newly written themes which held the piece together much more cohesively.

This piece was played with real zest and joy by Yuki MacQueen (violin), John Eckstein (cello) and Heather Conner (piano). The “Allegro Con Brio” first movement is a little burdened by a longish, hard-to-love melody, and it’s a long movement to boot. The adult me listened attentively while the child inside squirmed in its chair. But the child did settle down, in time. The second movement, “Scherzo: Allegro molto,” arrived like a friend. The second sounded as particular as the first felt generic. And the third movement, again was very pleasant and played with obvious pleasure, but it just didn't grab me like the Sonata for Cello and Piano had. Maybe the challenging British music in between had drained my energy, I felt I was more nearly wearing the music than listening to it in particular by the end.

Coming Jan. 20, the Nova Chamber Music Series will present two pieces, Schoenberg's “Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21,” which is celebrating its century anniversary. A big revolutionary song cycle which prefixes much of the Twentieth Century's music. And a new song cycle by Jason Eckardt will premiere, and given the similar scope and importance of these two works, it should be a very interesting essay on a century of classical music. I hope you are there, to hear some ambitious new music and to see one of the very best interpreters of modern music, soprano Tony Arnold.

Photo: Mikel Covey