Chamber Music Northwest review: from trifles to triumphs

Summer festival’s Eastern European-oriented concert makes up for opening night’s inconsistent programming

by TERRY ROSS

Chamber Music Northwest’s Summer Festival, which runs from June 26-July 30, 2017, has chosen as its focus female composers, from past to present. Three made an appearance in the festival’s opening night concert on June 27 in Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall.

Which seems like a fine idea, except that two of the three pieces shouldn’t have been programmed.

Clara Schumann’s 1879 March for Piano, Four Hands, in E-flat Major, although well enough played by Anna Polonsky and Orion Weiss, is a mere five-minute trifle without arresting harmony or melody: perhaps an encore, nothing more. Fanny Mendelssohn’s Pieces for Piano, Four Hands , although a bit longer, remind us that she and not her brother Felix may have been the originator of the so-called “song without words.” But her two songs, although conventionally pretty enough, and again well rendered by Polonsky and Weiss, don’t reach the level of Felix’s, which for him were mere bagatelles. These two female composers (I reject the term “women composers” — after all, we don’t say “men composers”) wrote better pieces than we heard here, and it is a disservice to them and to the audience to program some of their least interesting music, when there are more substantial pieces available by both composers, such as Mendelssohn’s piano trio and Easter Sonata or Schumann’s Romances for Violin and Piano, to name just a few.

Chamber Music Northwest artists played music by American composer Amy Beach. Photo: Tom Emerson.

The third woman on the ticket, Amy Beach, was the first of her sex to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra (the Boston Symphony). Four years later, in 1900, she played her own piano concerto with the same orchestra. Having performed Johannes Brahms’s Piano Quintet that same year, she used a theme from its closing Finale to put together her own Piano Quintet, Op. 67, which the CMNW group of pianist Anna Polonsky, violinists Ani Kavafian and Bella Hristova, violist Paul Neubauer, and cellist Peter Wiley played with great feeling.

Beach’s quintet has many charms of its own. In musical language that is firmly of the mid to late 19th century (in other words, Brahmsian), Beach demonstrates structural economy in each of the three movements, never going on too long with any thematic idea or repeating passages too often. The opening movement, which begins with unison strings, is moody and weighty, and the second-movement Andante, played quietly with mutes, is lovely in its melodic simplicity. The third movement Allegro agitato provides a lively conclusion, and the echo of unison playing from the first movement is extremely effective.

Brahms’s superb Piano Quintet, Op. 34, played by the same ensemble but with the violinists switching parts, made for a sumptuous second half of the concert. The opening Allegro, lasting 17 minutes, is a feast in itself. The third movement Scherzo is feverish in its intensity and has a marvelous inconclusive ending. And the 11-minute Finale, with its melancholy opening and leading inexorably to its extended and tempestuous coda, is simply a marvel of musical working out of themes.

The CMNW quintet played this masterpiece with precision and fire, even if it did seem odd to end the festival’s opening concert, presumably designed to showcase the achievements of female composers, with an overwhelming piece by a male.

From Russians to Roma

Five days later, on July 2, a different group of players presented East of the Danube, a program of music by eastern European and Russian composers. Béla Bartok’s Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano began the festivities, with Bella Hristova on violin, CMNW artistic director David Shifrin on clarinet, and Gloria Chien at the piano. They turned in an expert performance of this difficult and thorny piece, written in 1938 for violinist Joseph Szigeti and clarinetist Benny Goodman.

Throughout his career, Bartok relied more on tempo, rhythm, and variations in volume than on traditional melody or harmony, although his largely dissonant works are, to hear the music theorists tell it, elaborately worked out. The three CMNW players emphasized Bartok’s strengths well, and it was intriguing to see Ms. Hristova switch rapidly to a second violin for a passage that Bartok wrote for an alternate tuning, but there was frankly more melody and harmony in the first minute of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 than in all 17 minutes of Contrasts.

Still, the Shostakovich piece is hardly all traditional melodies and easy listening. Played by the Contrasts fiddler and pianist plus cellist Dmitri Atapine, the first movement started softly with the strings muted but then soon got louder. The second-movement Allegro con brio lent the piece its only brush with ebullience, and the CMNW trio made the most of it. The final movement’s Allegretto found all three players playing very loud for a while, apparently Shostakovich’s attempt to invoke Jewish folk dances: the entire piece, written in 1944, is a tribute to Shostakovich’s closest friend, Ivan Sollertinsky, a Jew, who died suddenly that year at age 41.

Hristova, Chien, Shifrin played Bartok at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 1 was the featured piece after the intermission, and the duo of violinist Soovin Kim and pianist Chien played it superbly. The opening Andante assai leads directly into the second-movement Allegro brusco (“fast and rough”), which Kim and Chien dispatched with great energy and precision. Their smooth playing in the third-movement Andante revealed the music’s resemblance to that of Ravel in its modern and yet somehow romantic melodies, and the fourth movement Allegrissiomo, rambunctious and polyglot, proved beautiful, with extremely fast and soft scales in the violin. A triumph.

And although it might seem surprising to hear that the audience left the hall laughing after a concert that included Béla Bartok’s Contrasts and Dmitri Shostakovich’s dark Piano Trio, not to mention Prokofiev’s rigorous contribution, this is exactly what happened after a quintet led by violist Paul Neubauer belted out four gypsy dances. Each about three minutes long, they were written by forgotten composers Hermann Schulenberg, Charles Robert Valdez (perhaps a nom de plume of violinist/composer Fritz Kreisler), and Georges Boulanger (no relation to the famous teacher Nadia), plus an anonymous piece called “The Canary,” a name given to a type of gypsy dance. With Neubauer striding amongst the audience while playing, this was enormously good, and corny, fun, and a very nice contrast with the preceding gravity.

Recommended recordings

• Beach
Ambache Chamber Ensemble (Chandos CHAN9752), 1998.

• Brahms
Takács Quartet with András Schiff, piano (Australian Eloquence ELQ4801280), 2013.

• Bartok
Clarinet Classics, Benny Goodman, clarinet; Bela Bartok, piano; Joseph Szigeti, violin (Heritage HTGCD268), 2014.

• Shostakovich
Shostakovich: Piano Trios & Songs, Florestan Trio (Hyperion CDA67834), 2011.

• Prokofiev
Prokofiev — Works for Violin and Piano, Gil Shaham, violin, & Orli Shaham, piano (Canary Classics CC02), 2007.

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 classicalclub@comcast.net.

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