Monday, August 1, 2011

concert review: Music@Menlo

This was the Brahms concert I had asked to review, the one with the String Sextet Op. 18 in it. I's one of my two favorite Brahms chamber works, along with the Piano Quintet, far outstripping the others. (The other Sextet and the three Piano Quartets come next.)

For all that I enjoyed it greatly, the review bears a querulous tone, as I'm crossing swords with the program notes. There are chamber works which could be fairly described as "veiled symphonies". The Clara Schumann trio is one, at least in this bounds-breaking performance. The audio program notes painted it as a stereotypically female quiet and bashful piece, and backed this up by using excerpts from an uncredited performance that was positively insipid, unlike any other recording or live performance of the work I've ever heard. The performers onstage Saturday were not out to emulate that in any manner. Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" quartet is a "veiled symphony" if there ever was one. But the Brahms Sextet is not. Rather, as this performance showed, it's a veiled concerto grosso, an entirely different animal.

The other thing in the notes that really got to me - leaving aside the constant references to Clara as Brahms' lost love, which by now I'm almost inured to - was the claim that the theme of Brahms' variation movement was La follia, a ubiquitous Renaissance melody that turns up in lots of 16th-18th century compositions, including the Vivaldi trio sonata on this program. I couldn't believe they'd say that. The tunes are in the same key, and bear some distant family resemblances, but they're totally distinct, both melodically and harmonically. Just to confirm it, having gotten the harmonic outline of La follia from the program notes, I did my own harmonic analysis of the theme in Brahms' score. It's only 16 bars long and fairly simply harmonized, so the fact that it took me over half an hour to get it done just shows how slowly I read music.

Listen for yourself. Here's Vivaldi (theme is about the first 42 seconds). Here's Brahms (theme, each of its two phrases played first on viola, then violin, is about 92 seconds).

There wasn't space in the review to say anything about the young performers concert that afternoon, which as always begin with the youngest players. After six years of going to these things, I'm still gobsmacked when they begin with three tiny-looking ten-year-olds coming out and giving an entirely creditable performance of (for instance, this year) a movement from Debussy's Piano Trio. I was also struck by the maturity with which three 12-16 year olds handled the ghostly finale of Shostakovich's Piano Trio, but all the groups were good, although I could have wished that the high-schoolers doing Dvořák's Piano Quintet had retained more of what Laurence Lesser had persuaded them to do in a master class on Thursday.

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