Category Archives: Music criticism

Sunday in the Park with Brahms

Portland String Quartet
Woodfords Congregational Church
Dec. 4, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

One of the high points of my musical experience was hearing the Bolivar Symphony Orchestra under Gustavo Dudamel, play Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. The young musicians, graduates of Venezuela’s El Sistema, not only played as well as any major symphony orchestra in the world, but brought an entirely new level of dedication and excitement to the work. No one has ever performed it better.

Thus I was looking forward to hearing violist Jesus Alfonzo, a founding member of El Sistema, play the Brahms String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111, with the Portland String Quartet, which has had a close relationship with the Venezuelan program since its beginning.

I was not disappointed. The musicians seemed inspired by the presence of Alfonzo to breathe new life into one of the most popular works in the chamber music repertoire.

Every movement threw off sparks. My notes on the first included “starlight in the park, with distant fireworks,” and an exclamation point about how much Richard Strauss had learned from Brahms.

In the second, Adagio, there was a pianissimo moment when every musician seemed as intent upon listening to the others as a cat in front of a mouse hole. Pardon the simile, but I could think of nothing else having such an immediate physical intensity.

The valse triste of the Poco Allegretto inspired not only Sibelius, as mentioned in the program notes, but also the slow movement of the Ravel piano concerto for the left hand.

The final movement emphasized the surprise occasioned by a ferocious gypsy dance tacked on to the penultimate bars of a relatively decorous development section-—almost as if Brahms had said to himself “This is going to be my last work, so the hell with it. I’ll include a fragment in memory of my misspent youth.”

I have complained about almost everyone’s interpretation of Brahms. This was a notable exception.

Whether intentionally or not, the PSQ coupled this work, by a composer who never wrote an opera, with a quartet by Verdi, who wrote just one purely instrumental work, and the Lyric Quartette (1960) of William Grant Still (1895-1978) an African-American composer who wrote both.

Unfortunately, I missed the Still quartet, but arrived in time for the Verdi String Quartet in E Minor (1873). It still seems more of a curiosity than a serious piece of music, almost a pastiche of tunes held together by a slight framework (rather like an opera?). The exception is the final Scherzo-Fugo, Allegro assai mosso, in which the composer proves, like others before him, that he can write a classical fugue, but then manages to turn it into a rather savage practical joke. As was the case with the Brahms, the PSQ made the most of it.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached a classbeat@netscape.net.

Sibelius Fifth Fails to Rise

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Nov. 20, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

A work that almost becomes a horn concerto was a fitting tribute to principal hornist John Boden, who will be retiring at the end of 2016 from the Portland Symphony Orchestra, after a career spanning 35 years.

Sunday affernoon’s concert began with a fine performance of Richard Strauss’ “Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche,” Op. 28, in which the hero is introduced, and sometimes portrayed by, a horn motif. Till is everyone’s lovable rascal, and his “merry pranks” contrast some of Strauss’ most elegant and noble melodies with slapstick orchestral carryings on.

When the law eventually caches up to Till and sentences him to the gallows, the scene-—perhaps a parody of Berlioz” “March to the Scaffold” in Symphony Fantastique—- is transformed from tragedy to comedy by a silly little tune on the flute, like the dropped handkerchief final bars in “Der Rosenkavalier,” indicating that all is well and his spirit lives on.

The Strauss was followed by Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 1 in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 19, in a brilliantly realized rendition by Benjamin Beilman. I couldn’t detect a single missed note in the fiendishly rapid and difficult score, which includes some really unusual dissonant double stops. More importantly, the young violinist realized the emotional content in some of the most lyrical passages Prokofiev ever wrote. The final extended note that concludes the work was pure magic, earning Beilman one of the rarely well-deserved standing ovations bestowed by a full house at Merrill Auditorium.

Prokofiev’s genius shines through every bar, but his use of the harp’s metallic, bell-like sound, against the sostenuto of the violin, was something I had never heard before, once again illustrating the necessity of live performance.

After two well-played masterpieces,, the orchestra’s performance of the great Sibelius Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, (Op. 82) was a disappointment.

It began well, with a first movement full of the composer’s northern pantheism and the pedal point of the forest. (Sibelius liked Niagara Falls for its really low notes.). In contrast the second movement was cheerful, in its playful handling of a five-note motif on plucked strings.

The final movement, although it had some high points, was a failure. It is one of the longest and most glorious crescendos in orchestral history, and its gradual, almost imperceptible increase in volume portrays the great awakening of Nature. Perhaps conductor Robert Moody wanted to try something different from the traditional reading, but under his direction the gradual ascent to Olympus became more of a sine wave of ups and downs, totally dissipating the effect of the climax. The overlong rests in the concluding bars were icing on a fallen cake, completely over the top.

It, too, received a standing ovation.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

True Virtuosity at the Franco Center

Igor Lovchinsky
Franco Center, Lewiston
Nov. 11, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

A detour caused by a traffic accident on Route 9 made us late getting to Lewiston’s Franco Center for a recital by Russian-American pianist Igor Lovchinsky. I was sorry to have missed his performance of two popular works by Ravel, but if his interpretation of other masters is any indication, the Ravel must have been spectacular.

Lovchinsky has the bravura technique of Horowitz, without the attitude. What other young concert pianist is about to receive his doctorate in physics from Harvard?

He was introduced to the Franco Center’s piano concert series when he joined Matthew Graybil for the New England premiere of Walter Piston’s Concerto for Two Pianos Solis.

Although Lovchinsky can spin cascades of notes with the best of them, his technique is at the service of an innate musicality. This was particularly evident in his rendition of the Prokofiev Sonata No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 29, in which the development of the themes was always audible through the thunder and lightning. Prokofiev’s unique voice, in which he sometimes seems to be mocking the virtuoso tradition, came through loud and clear, with echoes of both “Peter and the Wolf” and his piano suite “Visions Fugitives.”

After intermission, the pianist showed why he has become a noted interpreter of Chopin, winning the National Chopin competition of the Kosciuskko Foundation at the age of 19. His renditions of the Nocturne No. 20 in C-sharp Minor (Op. post.) and the Impromptu in A-flat Major, Op. 29, were intimate, without taking overly Romantic liberties. As Chopin recommended, the left hand always marched, no matter the rubato of the right.

The great Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52, demonstrated both overwhelming power and perfectly timed development toward the climactic measures. (Both of them.).

I mentioned Horowitz at the beginning because of Lovchinsky’s programming of two fiendishly difficult works by Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) — “The Skylark,” based on a song by Glinka, and his Oriental Fantasy “Islamey.” They reminded me of similar impossible show pieces (played by Horowitz) by Alkan or Godowsky.

The difficulty of “Islamey,” which has been adopted by many famous pianists, can be gauged by the fact that Scriabin injured his hand practicing it.

It is based on three Circassian themes which sound strangely like Alexander Borodin, but decorated so lavishly that they almost disappear. That they were perceptible among Lovchinsky’s coruscating fountains of notes, is a greater accomplishment than being able to execute the ornaments themselves.

Having been to concerts of this series in the past, I was not surprised by the caliber of the music but by the relatively small size of the audience. Where else in Maine can one experience world-class performances, for a very low ticket price, in a fine concert hall, have delicious crepes at intermission and share a glass of champagne with the artist afterward? Unfortunately, the next event in the series won’t be until January 20, with Maine pianist Christopher Staknys.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Bluebeard’s Triumph

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Nov. 1, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Tuesday night’s concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, under Robert Moody, was a study in contrasts.—two works of supreme genius. one a breathtaking accomplishment in modern orchestration and the other an example of how much can be accomplished with minimal resources.

The Bach Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins and String Orchestra (BWV 1043), with soloists Amy Sims and Sasha Callahan, must have been one of his favorite works, since he transcribed it for two harpsichords as well. It could be described as a vehicle for showing off the virtuosity of the composer and his sons if the soloists did not have so much fun playing it.

Sims and Callahan exchanged lines, phrases and ideas, and then combined them with pure delight, accompanied by just the right amount of basso continuo and with enough difference in sound quality to maintain their individuality. The result was heaven on earth, and all too short.

Sims is assistant concertmaster of the PSO, and Callahan a member of the violin section. Both have extensive experience in solo and ensemble playing with major orchestras and chamber music groups throughout the U.S.

Bartok’s early opera, “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle,” (Opus 11), while it ends badly for the new wife, Judith, sung by soprano Michelle DeYoung, is not a tragedy. Bluebeard has not murdered his three former wives, as she suspects, but merely sequestered them in his mental library—the seventh door— from which, as a poet, he can recollect them in tranquility.

Bluebeard, sung by bass-baritone Alan Held, loses his hopes for a soul-mate, but seems quite aware of how the story would end. Judith is the gentle darkness, following wives representing morning, noon and twilight. Bluebeard praises all of them in his dramatic closing lines.

Both protagonists were perfect for their parts: Judith, at first demanding and finally resigned, and Bluebeard exuding power and hope without hope. The opera requires acting as well as voice to carry the action forward, and the duo had ample amounts of both, plus a feeling for the philosophical framework of the libretto.

Had the drama been even more desolate, the opera still could not be termed a tragedy, since the orchestra is triumphant throughout, with some of the most brilliant writing ever committed to a score, and that includes Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky. The music that accompanies the triumphant opening of the door upon Bluebeard’s domains is sui generis, a paean to Bartok’s love of country even as its clouds rain blood.

The complex orchestration that produces the magnificent effects of the opera has best been described by composer Ned Rorem (on the music of the “Lake of Tears” door): “Yes, I see on the staves that one flute and one clarinet repeatedly rise and fall at great speed in close harmony backed by three other flutes flutter-tonguing, while one harp glissandos and another arpeggiates in close harmony with a celesta backed by muted strings divided into a thick A-minor triad—-all of this pianississimo. But could I have guessed that the simultaneous hollow soughing stems from the sustained intoning of two low horns a fifth apart, doubled by a kettledrum chord and a large gong? Fifty separate human players produce his pale whisper…”

Try to hear that on a recording.

All in all a tremendous performance and a daring one, totally effective, even without staging. Its 55 minutes, like those of the opening Bach concerto, passed by all too rapidly.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Midcoast Shines in Romantic Program

Midcoast Symphony Orchestra
Franco Center, Lewiston
Oct. 22, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

As a hopeless Romantic, I went to the Franco Center Saturday night expecting to hear live performances of three of my favorite works— the “Light Cavalry” Overture, the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 and Brahms’ Symphony No.1 in C-minor.

What I was unprepared for was the quality of the performances by the Midcoast Symphony under the direction of Rohan Smith. They would have done credit to any well-known professional orchestra; from an “amateur” ensemble they were little short of miraculous. I urge any music lover who can get there, to attend a repeat of the program at the Orion Center in Topsham today (Oct. 23) at 2:30.

It reminded me of Schopenhauer’s paradox, to the effect that we admire those who practice an art for money and denigrate those who do it for love, calling them “amateurs.”

The von Suppé, which I believe was sometimes played on “The Lone Ranger” in addition to the “William Tell” Overture, is the epitome of a canter cross-country with some light excuse. As the general said of fox hunting; “all the excitement of war and only a quarter of its danger.” It is pure delight, with just the hint of a melancholy center to contrast with the beginning and end.

The overture, of course, is a popular war horse of the repertoire, but difficult to do well at an exciting tempo. The Midcoast’s swash-buckling rendition was well-nigh perfect.

The Rachmaninoff, equally familiar, was equally well played, with Jonathan Bass at the piano tossing off coruscating clouds of notes, matched in brilliance by the orchestra. There was a little tug-of-war about tempo at the beginning, but that only added to a suspenseful performance as the composer, knowingly aided by Smith, teased the audience with hints at the final movement’s “Full Moon and Empty Arms.”

After the Center’s traditional crepes and wine during intermission came the greatest test of any orchestra, a Brahms symphony. In this performance, Smith succeeded in conveying the composer’s debt to Beethoven (and Bach), without compromising the forward thrust of the score.

The symphony is full of pitfalls, from lush orchestration to demanding percussion parts to pizzicati by the full swing section, all of them negotiated without a hitch. What one really worries about, however, are the heavenly horn calls preceding the ode to joy of the final movement. Those of principal Carolyn Kanicki were enough to bring tears to your eyes. The other players in the all-female section are Beth Almquist, Cynthia Harkleroad and Sarah Rodgers.

Brahms may not outdo Beethoven in his own “Ode to Joy,” but he achieves the same triumphant effect without the last resort of composers—the human voice.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Roman Legions Triumph at First Portland Symphony Concert

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Oct. 9, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Until Sunday’s concert of the Portland Symphony Orchestra at Merrill Auditorium, complete with Kotzschmar Organ, I had never realized just how good Ottorino Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” was. It was a shining example, if any were needed, of the absolute necessity of live performance. To think that any substantial percentage of its excitement could be captured electronically is palpably absurd.

Music director Robert Moody pulled out all the stops for this crowd-pleasing conclusion to the first concert of the season—a terrific nightingale recording, off-stage trumpets, reinforced brass and the growl of the afore-mentioned organ. The entire orchestra was on its best behavior in a score that for gorgeousness of orchestral color puts even Rimsky-Korsakov, Respighi’s teacher, to shame.

All four movements of the work were superb examples of musical scene-painting. One could almost feel the warm winds blowing through the pine branches or visualize the ancient Christians chanting in the catacombs, but the final triumphant procession of the Roman legions was sui generis. Compare it to Ravel’s infinitely long crescendo in “Bolero”, the only composition that comes anywhere near to its spectacular climax. It was held to imperceptible gradations in volume by the terrific work of John Tanzer on timpani.

If there are seats left for today’s (Monday, Oct. 10)) performance, it is not to be missed. You will be able to hear it just fine from the nosebleed sections.

The program began with an excellent performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major (Op. 60), marred somewhat by over-attention to detail and over-blown dynamic contrasts, perhaps resorted to because the piece lacks the inherent appeal of the other eight. The details, however, such as the soaring flute solo in the adagio, posed yet another argument for live performance.

In listening to this seldom-heard symphony, I find it helps to imagine it as aspects of water, beginning with a still lake, eventually ruffled by a breeze. The Fourth doesn’t compel visions, like the Sixth, but the water imagery helps one follow its development.

The most disappointing aspect of the afternoon was a new concerto by Mason Bates (b. 1977), written for cellist Joshua Roman, who performed it as well as could be expected, accompanied by a huge orchestra with no place to go. I believe some of the instruments were used only once in three movements. Their purpose seemed to be the simulation of electronically generated sounds.

In the final movement, a kind of jazzy Irish pub improvisation that goes on forever, without even the consolation of beer, Roman resorted to a guitar pick for some involved pizzicato passages. I guess it’s easier on the fingers.
The audience gave the talented young cellist a standing ovation, but the concerto is the kind of music that would sound better on a CD.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached a clssbeat@nescape.net.

Asakawa Shines in Contemporary Piano Music

Mari Asakawa, Piano
Bates College
Sept. 28, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

Lewiston is becoming the piano music capital of Maine. The Franco Center’s excellent piano series is gaining a wide following and ever since the residency of the late Frank Glazer, Bates College has been showcasing some of the world’s finest talents at Olin Hall. For music lovers on a limited budget, many of the Bates concerts are free and open to the pubic.

Wednesday night’s recital by Mari Asakawa, a world-renowned specialist in contemporary piano music, was one of the most unusual I have attended, except perhaps for the Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music at Bowdoin.

Asakawa began her program with Contrapuncti I, V and VII from Bach’s “The Art of Fugue,” (BWV1080) remarking from the stage that many of the techniques employed by both serial and avant garde composers were already prominent in Bach’s counterpoint..

Her piano interpretations, the first I have heard since Glenn Gould’s, were remarkable in their sharp delineation of voices. Unlike Gould’s, they were played from memory, while the rest of the works on the program were “read” from a score. Asakawa turns her own pages, since I doubt that many page turners could follow the music well enough to be of any assistance.

The Bach was followed by “Eventide” (2016) written specifically for the concert by Hiroya Miura, who was in the audience. The two movements, “In Blue,” and “In Purple,” were in an impressionistic, stream of consciousness style, somewhat reminiscent of Persichetti. One incorporates a quote from the opening guitar solo of “When Doves Cry,” by Prince, who died suddenly at the time that Miura was writing the work.

My favorite of the evening was “Ciaccona” (1998) by Claudio Ambrosini, perhaps because it was easy to follow on first hearing. The theme, modeled on the ancient slow-dance form, is a descending chromatic scale, with treble embellishments that become more and more virtuosic as the dance progresses, reaching the near impossible by the end.

Perhaps serial (twelve-tone) music will catch on eventually, although I doubt that audiences will go home whistling the tunes, as Schoenberg hoped. That thought was prompted by “Post-Partitions” (1966) of Milton Babbitt, so well and carefully constructed that it stands out like a granite monument among ephemera.

A lengthy work by Eliott Carrter, “Night Fantasies,” (1980) concluded the program. As an attempt to capture the thoughts and dreams that dominate the mind late at night, it was unsuccessful, although beautifully played by an artist strongly associated with Carter. There was too little contrast between moments of calm and the lightning flashes of insight, and the dynamics ranged from mezzo-forte to fortissimo.

Strangely enough, Carter was trying to imitate the “poetic moodiness” of certain works by Schumann; like his model, he wound up with too many notes, as if dreading an instant of silence.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

How Do You Know When to Stand Up? A Short History of the National Anthem

“Whoever plays, sings or renders “The Star Spangled Banner” in any public place, theater, motion picture hall, restaurant or cafe, or at any public entertainment other than as a whole and separate composition or number, without embellishment or addition in the way of national or other melodies, or whoever plays sings or renders “The Star Spangled Banner” or any part thereof as dance music, as an exit march, or as part of a medley of any kind shall be punished by a fine of not more than one hundred dollars.”

I came across this gem of Boston law while reading articles on Stravinsky during the centennial of “The Rite of Spring.” It seems appropriate today with the controversy over an athlete sitting out the Star Spangled Banner because of its racist overtones. (The offending verses are usually removed from the text, as they were in my grade school songbook.)

My first thought was eureka! now we’ve got them, all the singers at baseball and football games who like to show off just how much they can “embellish” the song while still retaining a slight vestige of its original melody. It has gotten to the point where anyone who sings the tune straight is regarded as a novelty. It would be different if the pop artists (and even opera stars) were trying to make it more compelling, but they’re not. Maybe it’s just that they’re trying to disguise wrong or unreachable notes in a difficult composition.

Unfortunately, it seems that there has been only one instance of the ordinance’s application–against Igor Stravinsky on Jan. 15, 1944, about the time I belted out the song from the balcony before a performance of “Oklahoma” in New York. (My father told me that it was on opening night, but that would have been in 1943.)

I mention that incident only to illustrate the unreliability of hindsight, which has perpetuated the myth that Stravinsky was actually arrested, complete with a mug shot (taken of a look-alike criminal four years earlier).

In reality, Stravinsky wrote his arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner” in token of his appreciation of his adopted country. It includes contrapuntal counter-subjects and a modulation into the subdominant by means of a “blue note”–a passing seventh. (The original version has been recorded.)

After the first performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a concerned citizen phoned the police to complain and they attended the second performance, on the 15th, en masse. Stravinsky, however, had been tipped off and played the work straight. The 14 policemen are said not to have remained for the rest of the concert, which included some of Stravinsky’s latest compositions, including the “Circus Polka.”

Stravinsky’s reaction to the peculiarities of his adopted country has not been recorded. It probably took the form of an extra vodka martini.

The composer’s musical taste, in this instance, leaves something to be desired, since he referred to “The Star Spangled Banner” as “a beautiful sacred anthem.” The tune, of course, is that of a risque British drinking song, “Anacreon in Heaven,” which doesn’t even fit slave-holder Francis Scott Key’s verses very well.

It caught on after 1865, when it was played at the restoration of the flag to Fort Sumter (not Ft. McHenry) and later was taken up by John Philip Sousa, who made it popular. It was named the official anthem of the United States by Congress in 1931, just before Sousa’s death.

A phrase from the anthem,”In God is our trust,” inspired Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase to put “In God We Trust” on the dollar bill during the Civil War.

So next time the Patriots play in Gillette Stadium, I expect a phalanx of Boston’s finest to be present, with copies of the original score and a paddywagon.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Surprise at the Portland Chamber Music Festival

Portland Chamber Music Festival
Hannaford Hall, USM Portland
Aug. 20, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

The final concert of the Portland Chamber Music Festival, Saturday night at Hannaford Hall, achieved something unprecedented in musical history—an avant-garde piece of electronic music that was pleasantly bland. Varèse must be turning over in his grave.

The work in question was entitled “Self Destruct,” by Jeremy Flowers (b. 1979) and “was conceived as a companion to stress and failed time management.” (Composer’s notes.)

He continues: “The first movement begins with a germ of an idea sneaking in softly, followed by a rash (sic) of excitement. After a period of crippling self-doubt, the melodic lines in the strings come together to state the fully realized melodic idea that was borne (sic) from the germ at the beginning.

“The second movement is slower, more representative of the moments of serenity one can find in seeming chaos. We return to the initial germ from the first movement heard again over a slowly writhing electronic ostinato. If the first movement’s development of this idea is by brute force, here it’s a much more tender realization.”

The notes state that the piece is in three movements, but the third seems to have disappeared. (Maybe that’s the one that self-destructed.) It is scored for electronics, operated by the composer, viola, two cellos, marimba and piano.

There seemed to be an element of improvisation involved at first, as the composer sampled the timbres of the real instruments and transformed them in various ways, including some interesting reverberation and glass harmonica effects. There was a good common-time rhythmic pulse throughout.

One could follow the construction pretty well, but the final result of the combined forces was a repeated, harmonic and tonal phrase that came dangerously close to elevator pop. It was all pleasant enough, but more perpetual motion than self-destruction. Perhaps it was intended as an antidote to negative feelings. The audience liked it, and gave performers and composer a standing ovation.

The contemporary composition was balanced by two well-played crowd pleasers: the Mozart Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat Major (K. 293) and, as a finale, the Dvorak String Sextet in A Major (Op. 48).

It was good to hear Portland’s own Henry Kramer at the piano in the Mozart quartet, which is basically a miniature piano concerto without the overt display. He didn’t have much to do in the Flowers opus, however. The Dvorak was an ideal finish to the season, ending on an upbeat Czech dance that brought cheers from a large audience.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Salt Bay Season Ends on a High Note

Salt Bay Chamberfesst
Darrows Barn, Round Top Center, Damariscotta
Aug. 19, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

The Salt Bay Chamberfest ended its 22nd season on a high note Friday night, with three outstanding performances by the Brentano String Quartet, with soloists Thomas Sauer, piano, and Romie de Guise-Langlois, clarinet. As usual for the last several seasons, Darrows Barn, at Damariscotta’s Round Top Center, was filled to overflowing.

It is rare in Maine to be able to compare performances of the same work by different artists during the same season, but such was the case with the String Quartet No. 2 (“Intimate Letters”) by Leoš Janáček. The Portland String Quartet showcased the work in April (see review “Intimate Letters”) It was second on Friday night’s program by the Brentano Quartet.

The PSQ version tended to emphasize its new cellist in the role of the composer in this love affair with a married woman 38 younger than he. The Brentano had a more balanced approach, in which lover and beloved were treated with equal passion.

Written in the last year of Janáček’s life (1928), when he was 74, the quartet should nevertheless be X-rated. It depicts every aspect of the long-lasting liaison, using letter keys, numerology and speech patterns to tie incidents to specific times and places and leit-motifs to code specific actions.The official line is that the affair was platonic, but the music says otherwise.

Maybe it was just the second live hearing of the work, but I found the Brentano’s version somewhat more compelling, in an earthy rather than intellectual way.

Speaking of earthy, the opening work on the program, commissioned in 2016 by the Brentano from Israeli composer Shulamit Ran (b. 1949) was named “Stream” . The three movements, for string quartet and clarinet, can depict a stream becoming a river, like Smetana’s “Moldau,” or a stream of consciousness progressing from fragmentary images to firm resolution.

Whatever the chosen program, the quartet is a vehicle for overwhelmingly fluid virtuosity on the clarinet, matched by and complementing its partnership with the strings. Heard live, it was marvelous.

The evening ended with more virtuosity than seems possible for a 15-year-old composer: the Mendelssohn Piano Quartet in B minor, Opus 3. It doesn’t yield much, if at all, to the later piano concertos, in terms of solid construction, inventiveness and pure excitement.

The young composer seems to have just discovered the possibilities of triplets (from Scarlatti?) and purely revels in them. The whole quartet is a sort of tarantella, While the members of the Brentano, absent the second violin, were able to hold it together as a quartet for the first three movements, they had to throw up their hands in the final Allegro vivace, and yield the stage to Sauer, who turned in an astounding performance with seeming nonchalance. It was remarkable for a pianist at the height of his powers. For a teenager it must have seemed the work of the devil.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.