Tag Archives: Berg

A “Frolicsome Finale” for the DaPonte String Quartet

DaPonte String Quartet
Unitarian Universalist Church, Brunswick
March 25, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

“If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise.” I thought of Blake’s aphorism while listening to Alban Berg’s early String Quartet, Opus 8 (1910) at the final concert of the DaPonte String Quartet’s winter series II at Brunswick’s Unitarian Universalist Church on Saturday.

The Berg was the semi-tonal “meat” in the musical “sandwich” of easily accessible works typical of Maine concerts. The two-movement quartet is full of marvelous ideas, but stated and developed so rapidly that one easily loses track. If he had taken just one, say the “Der Rosenkavalier” dying fall borrowed from Richard Strauss,  and played with it for a while…

The work is very dark, but relatively tonal, making use of numerical and literary allusions, such as repeated two-note sequences based on his own initials, AB. In that way, it reminds me of the work of the late Elliott Schwartz. It also has passages that sound strangely like the French horn in their combination of textures.

The quartet would surely benefit from repeated hearings, maybe on the DaPonte web site? Nothing can compare to live music —the DaPonte presents five concerts throughout Maine in each of its seasonal series—but it took many repeats of a recorded Berg “Altenberg Lieder” before I could begin to appreciate it.

I would certainly like to hear the accelerando cello part once again, and the “Morse Code” sequences in which Berg flirts with serialism.

The program began with another early work, the String Quartet in C Major, Op. 20, No. 2, of Joseph Haydn. The concluding movement, Fuga a quattro soggetti, is “too easy for amateurs, too difficult for professionals,” as one critic quipped. Another noted on the score that it was enough to alienate friends who tried to play it together.
The DaPonte, although thorough professionals, succeeded brilliantly. The only noticeable symptom of a fatiguing schedule came in the relatively simple first movement.

The final quartet was Benjamin Britten’s “Simple Symphony,” which, though childish sounding— its four moments are called, “Boisterous Bourrée,” “Playful Pizzicato,” “Sentimental Sarabande,” and “Frolicsome Finale” because it was written by BB for alliterative violist Audrey Alston —was a total delight. It is funny, light-hearted, clever and exudes the essence of British folk music, far removed from the tragedy of “Peter Grimes.”

Britten was only 20 when he wrote it, but the symphony is based on themes from some even earlier works for piano, which I now have to get my hands on. The false cadences in the finale sound like a parody of Beethoven, whose String Quartet No. 7 in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1, it replaced on the program.

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

A Thinking Man’s Pianist

Pianist Richard Goode
Olin Arts Center, Bates College
Oct. 28, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Pianist Richard Goode is a man of a thousand voices, as was apparent from his recital at Bates’ Olin Arts Center Saturday night.
Goode is a great pianist, as unconventional in his way as the late Glenn Gould, and one of his defining characteristics is the ability to make the piano imitate the instruments of the orchestra, something that stands him in good stead when delineating hitherto unheard voices in familiar works.

The ability showed itself immediately in four preludes and fugues from the second book of “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” One is accustomed to chasing the theme through its various transformations in a Bach fugue. Goode makes it easy, even with the most long-limbed and Baroque motifs of Book Two. He also reveals relationships between the lines more clearly than anyone I have heard since Walter Gieseking.

Another ability came to the fore in his superlative rendition of the Alban Berg Piano Sonata, Op. 1, (ca. 1910)—musical intelligence. Listening to Goode’s interpretation revealed structure and development in a way that made the work effective musically, something that analysis never accomplishes.

The Berg was followed by one of Beethoven’s weirdest children (a Halloween treat?): the Sonata No. 28 in A Major, Op. 101. Maybe the composer was doing penance for the “Moonlight,” but even the indications are a little much,  for example ”Geschwindt, doch nicht zu sehr und mit Entsclossenheit. Allegro,” before the final movement. (Rapidly but not too much so, and with determination.”)
Goode made it sound even more strange than it is. Good or bad, it was certainly an unconventional reading, but with Beethoven’s characteristic abrupt changes in mood and dynamics. (Goode’s dynamics, for Sunday evening at least, ranged from mp to fff, sometimes in the same second, with the Steinway in brilliant mode.)

HIs iconoclastic approach, while still exciting, was not as successful in the second half of the program, devoted entirely to Chopin. Nevertheless, his unsentimental renditions brought out the musical, rather than emotional, beauties of the works. The four Mazurkas managed to combine danceable rhythms with the complexity of the Bach preludes heard earlier.

Merely following the tempo indications of the familiar Nocturne in C-sharp minor (Op. 47) was unusual enough.  In every example on the program Goode tossed off the most fantastic of Chopin’s elaborate ornamentations gracefully and in tempo.

The final work on the program, the great Barcarolle in F-sharp major (Op. 60) sounded like the gondolier was competing at Henle. (I couldn’t resist, but the tempo was a little fast for traditional ears.)

That said, it was absolutely wonderful. More wonderful still is the fact that the pianist actually found the real climax of the piece and never approached it again, no matter how tempting the later surges became. This is something rare in virtuoso pianists, no matter what their reputation.

It resulted in a sanding ovation from the large audience, and an encore of a William Byrd Pavane and Gailiarde, which presage both Bach and Chopin.

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

Portland Chamber Music Festival Ends on a Happy Note

Portland Chamber Music Festival
Hannaford Hall, USM
Aug. 19, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Alban Berg, serialist of “Wozzek” fame, is not a composer one normally associates with the theme of “happily ever after.” HIs “Seven Early Songs” (1905-1908), however, depict the progress of a successful love affair that is not only consummated but fades away into an everlasting summer sunset.

It was lovingly rendered by soprano Tony Arnold, with Diane Walsh, piano, in the final concert of the Portland Chamber Music Festival, Saturday night at Hannaford Hall.

Although the songs are more late Romantic than 12-tone in style, no one goes home whistling their melodies, as Berg’s teacher, Schoenberg, hoped would have happened by now. Perhaps the upbeat theme of the set is behind it, but they seem less dark in feeling than their models by Richard Strauss, some of which we heard last week at the Salt Bay Chamberfest.

Berg, however, is a master at creating an emotional universe to encase a poem, and Arnold, a noted interpretor of “modern” composers, recreated the atmosphere of each precisely. I would like to hear her interpretation of the later “Altenberg Leider.”

Ironically, a contemporary work by David Bruce (b. 1970), “Gumboots” for Clarinet and String Quartet, (2008), was more easily accessible. The unfortunate title (think of galoshes), refers to the boots that South African wage slaves had to wear in flooded mines, and which they employed to develop a sort of covert rhythmical language.

“Gumboots,” commissioned by clarinetist Todd Palmer, who played it at the concert, consists of five lively dances and an interlude, which the composer sees as the “abstract celebration of the rejuvenating power of dance, moving as it does from introspection through to celebration.”

Each dance is a polyrhythmic romp on the strings, supporting an incredibly virtuosic clarinet part, heavily influenced by traditional African musical forms. Although there is little “progress” through the movements, each was great fun, with the only atonality occurring in some of the clarinet’s grace notes.

The evening concluded with the closest approach to a string orchestra (12 players) that I have heard at a PCMF concert, in the Dvorák Serenade in E Major, Op. 22.

Unless one were familiar with this early work, it would be difficult to tell, except for the last movement, that it was by Dvorák at all. Some of it sounds weirdly like Borodin. The orchestra was sometimes in need of a conductor, but it was still a pleasant, if not memorable experience, and was received with a standing ovation by the large audience.

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