Review by Barry Plaxen
BETHEL, NY (October 7, 2014) – On September 28, 2014, a lovely Sunday afternoon, the next to last concert of the Sunday with Friends Chamber Music Series in the Event Gallery at Bethel Woods began with Mozart’s “String Quintet No.2 in c minor, K.406/516B”.
Mozart wrote a half dozen string quintets with the viola as the fifth instrument added to the standard string quartet. I am familiar with his last four string quintets, some deep and profound works, some joyous and profound. This was the first time I heard no. 2 and was surprised at its lightness and simplicity. I thought it was possibly written as divertimento-like music to accompany dinner, i.e listen to it as you wish, or just eat. And later when I researched, I discovered it is a transcription of an earlier Serenade for wind octet.
Though nicely played, if I may use the word of a friend in the audience, it was “unsatisfying”. The five players, all of the highest caliber and renown in the chamber music world today, “mostly” New York Philharmonic members: Ani Kavafian and Ida Kavafian, violins; Steven Tenenbom and Hsin-Yun Huang, violas: and Carter Brey, cello, seemed to play with interest but, I thought, it lacked spark. It has been written that "by general consent, Mozart’s greatest achievement in chamber music is the group of string quintets with two violas.” Well, “yes” if you know his last four, but ”no” for this one.
As far as myself and others I spoke with, the concert really began with our being introduced to a new friend (new to just about all of us), the kind of friend you like from the outset and want to know more about and want to be in the presence of for a longer period. Joined by cellist Peter Wiley, they performed a “String Sextet” by Frank Bridge (1879-1941), whose claim to fame is that he was Benjamin Britten’s teacher. Well, not in my book. It is his (Bridge’s) music that shines, not his attachment to some famous 20th century composer.
After sitting pretty much still during Mozart’s quintet, playing without any body movements, the five quintet players came alive. And how! With the added cellist, they delved, probed and burrowed into the music and stirred us, shook us (I sat up instantly with ears perked) and, all throughout the work, happily, moved us.
Bridge comes a generation later than Elgar, is a contemporary of Ravel and Arnold Bax, and is of the generation before Gerald Finzi. His masterwork, ignored probably because of its out-of-style “lush romanticism,” as Tenenbom described it, has a language all its own. When hearing a new piece of music like this, one can get lost in thinking who?, who? does that passage sound like? And who?, who? does this one sound like? But all my thinking did not conjure up anyone else for me, and I wish they could have played it again so that I could hear it without my foolish thinking and trying to give it an attachment.
The varied sonorities and textures in this great work include an especially beautiful but sad “duet” for the two violas, and the entire work has both a kind of yearning and an exuberant effervescence along with unique musical progressions and melodies and what seemed like new ways of going from major to minor and vice versa. And the six played it with just the right amounts of gusto and tenderness, emphasizing the right passage by the right instrument; it had equal parts for all six to shine with their own passages, their own back and forth dialogue.
Speaking of emphasis, and also balance, a highlight was the end of one movement when they played a minor chord BUT the first violist played the minor third note a bit louder than the others. What a sound! I thought it was probably Tenenbom’s idea, but I noted after researching, that Bridge was a violist in a quartet and now assume the marking, the emphasis, was his. Perhaps yes, perhaps not. It was a magnificent touch. And the work was played magnificently throughout.
Another new friend, but of a different stripe, followed. A well-known work, but not to me, is Tchaikovsky’s “String Sextet in d minor, ‘Souvenir de Florence.’”
Tchaikovksy’s sextet is not as democratic as Bridge’s. The players don’t all solo as much, and its sound is even lusher than Bridge’s. The melodies belonged to the first chair players, it seemed. But democratically speaking, the violinists and violists switched roles and chairs, the cellists switched roles. A nice touch.
And, being a master, Tchaikovsky’s melodies are truly outstanding. Though the work has emotional and technical fireworks, this is not the “1812 Overture”. Though it has bravado and virtuosity, this is not a piano or violin concerto. And those melodies! Beautiful as they are, this is not the sentimental and corny stuff Swan Lakes are made of. Yes, it does have Russian folk-like melodies and rhythms, and they are all mixed up with pure romanticism and a bit of structured classical forms. This is an outstanding chamber work, and it was played as only a world class ensemble can, with emphases that created the best balances of Tchaikovsky’s harmonies, while the “soloists” soared with the melodies and the six stirred us all with the rhythms and with their intense communication that thrills, moves and entertains at the same time.
The last in the 2014 Sunday with Friends series, an oboe-horn-piano trio that is also “mostly NY Philharmonic,” occurs on October 26 at 2:00 p.m. Don’t miss it! www.BethelWoodsCenter.org or 845-583-2060.
In photo above: Top row: Ani Kavafian, Carter Brey, Hsin-Yun Huang
Bottom row: Ida Kavafian, Steven Tenenbom, Peter Wiley