by TERRY ROSS
Chamber Music Northwest’s Passions United series at the end of January offered a rare chance to hear well-established and also less-heard pieces played by a roster of world-class musicians. I chose the concert atReed’s Kaul Auditorium on Friday, January 27 as offering the largest number of players (10) and the chance to hear two excellent pieces that are not programmed often enough.
The concert began, though, with just two pianists in a group of four of Antonin Dvorak’s well-known Slavonic Dances. Inspired by Johannes Brahms’s Hungarian Dances, Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote two sets of these, in 1878 and 1886, for piano four-hands. His publisher immediately asked for orchestrated versions; Dvorak complied and the Opus 46 and Opus 72 sets of eight each are now generally performed by orchestras.
Here, Wu Han and John Kimura Parker played Dvorak’s original versions, with Ms. Han taking the left side of the bench. They started with two dances from the earlier opus, those in C major and E minor, and closed with the two most ebullient from Opus 72, the E minor and B major. Ms. Han in particular threw herself at the keyboard with obvious delight and Mr. Parker kept up with her in these colorful and dashing examples of Dvorak at his most free and lighthearted.
Next up was a comparative rarity, Anton Arensky’s Quartet in A Minor, Op. 35, written in 1894 as a sort of requiem for Tchaikovsky, whom Arensky had revered and who had died the year before. Arensky (1861-1906) borrowed from himself and from the master for his music; he had earlier written Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky, which in turn came from the slow movement of his second string quartet. Both these pieces and the quartet on tonight’s program borrowed one of Tchaikovsky’s Songs for Children, Op. 54, the haunting “Legend,” which set the text of poem by the Englishman Richard Stoddard called “Roses and Thorns.”
The melody of “Legend” is a beautiful one, and it is given extra weight and pathos by being scored for a single violin, viola, and two cellos. William Felkenhauer and John Largess of the Miró Quartet were joined by the cellists Clive Greensmith, borrowed from the festival’s Montrose Trio, and David Finckel, longtime member of the Emerson Quartet who now performs as a duo with wife Wu Han. They played Arensky’s emotional score with care and restraint; the second movement set of seven variations on Tchaikovsky’s melody was especially affecting.
After the intermission, the Miró Quartet returned in full (Daniel Ching the other violinist, Joshua Gindele the cellist) for a rendition of Felix Mendelssohn’s Quartet for Piano, Violin and Strings in D Minor, a remarkable piece written when the composer (1809-1847) was just fourteen years old. Wu Han was the piano soloist, a role Mendelssohn himself had taken in the piece’s first performance, and the Montrose Trio’s Martin Beaver the violin soloist. This sextet was enlarged by the addition of double bassist Curtis Dailey of the Portland Baroque Orchestra, presumably to give a little extra heft to the quartet; Mendelssohn also wrote a version of this quartet for soloists and string orchestra. Except when Mr. Gindele had the melody, which was rarely, Mr. Dailey simply doubled the cellist on his larger instrument.
It’s hard to overpraise the pieces Mendelssohn wrote as a teenager; they far exceed in quality and expertise those written by any other composer, including Mozart, to whom the young Felix was favorably compared in his adolescence. In addition to twelve string symphonies composed before he was fourteen, Mendelssohn wrote the overture to the Midsummer Night’s Dream music and the astounding Octet for double string quartet, both finished when he was just sixteen, and the double concerto on tonight’s program, which is every bit the equal of these other pieces. In the concluding third movement Allegro molto, Ms. Han dispatched Mendelssohn’s brilliant piano part with flair, and Mr. Beaver played throughout the 38-minute piece with precision and panache. The teenager’s music proved a superb concert closer, a fitting end to an evening of numerous talents and intriguing repertoire.
Dvorak Slavonic Dances
• Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnanyi conducting, 1990 (London D125490).
• The Raphael Ensemble (Anthony Marwood violin; Timothy Boulton, viola; Andrea Hess, cello; Michael Stirling, cello), 1993 (Hyperion CDH55426)
Mendelssohn Double Concerto
• Tamsin Waley-Cohen, violin; Huw Watkins, piano; Orchestra of the Swan, David Curtis conducting (Hyperion Signum Classics).
• Marat Bisenfaliev, violin; Benjamin Frith, piano; Northern Sinfonia, Andrew Penny conducting, 1996 (Naxos 8.553844)
• version with winds and timpani: Antje Weithaas, violin; Alexander Lonquich, piano; Camerata Bern, 2010 (Claves 50-1102).
Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at email@example.com.