Chamber Music Northwest reviews: famous and unfamiliar fare

Emerson and Calidore Quartets excel in classics by male European composers, while Claremont Trio shines in works by three generations of female composers

by TERRY ROSS

Throughout his long and productive career, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) used the genre of the string quartet as an outlet for his emotions when his orchestral or operatic works had been criticized and suppressed by Stalin’s censors. Earlier this year, the Emerson String Quartet played Dmitri Shostakovich’s fourth quartet in an April 19 concert, and on July 8, still under the auspices of Chamber Music Northwest, they added the composer’s fourteenth quartet and on July 9, the eighth. What a treat to get to hear these wonderful players performing so much of the music of the 20th century’s greatest and most important composer of string quartets.

The Emersons — Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violins; Lawrence Dutton, viola; Paul Watkins, cello —began the July 8 concert with a tasty seven-minute appetizer by the English 17th-century composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695), one of his many chaconies small pieces originally written for what was called a consort of viols, generally a quartet of stringed instruments that were the immediate precursors of the modern violin, viola, cello, and double bass. In the Chacony in G Minor, Mr. Watkins took the part of the violone, the viol family’s version of the modern double bass. It was a plausible but hardly necessary introduction to the real business at hand: Shostakovich’s 14th Quartet followed by the same composer’s marvelous Prelude and Scherzo and then, in the concert’s second half, Mendelssohn’s miraculous Octet, written when the composer was only sixteen years old.

The Calidore Quartet joined the Emerson Quartet to play octets at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Shostakovich’s fourteenth and penultimate quartet (he also wrote fifteen symphonies) alternates between pensive and almost romantic passages. Shostakovich had begun the piece during a happy visit with the English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), whom he admired, at Britten’s home in England. Dedicated to a cellist, the quartet showcases that instrument at the beginning before the second-movement Adagio, where the cellist is joined by the first violinist while the other two quartet members play pizzicato. In the final movement Allegretto, the players toss melodic fragments among themselves, a task difficult to do but very effective when done well, as the Emersons demonstrated. The quartet then ends with a quiet return to the first movement’s lovely Adagio.

To end the concert’s first half, the Emersons then brought onstage the Calidore String Quartet to join their mentors in Shostakovich’s not-well-known Prelude and Scherzo for String Octet, scored for double string quartet. The Emersons generously assigned their younger collaborators (violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violist Jeremy Berry, cellist Estelle Choi) the first-chair parts for this energetic composition by the young Shostakovich, written when he was just 18 years old. Especially in its super-vigorous Allegro molto, with all eight players sawing away like mad, it proved an effective piece on its own.

The Emerson players assumed their first-chair seats for the second half’s offering, Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings, Op. 20 All eight players, who have played this work together on several occasions, seemed to be of one mind in the capacious first-movement Allegro, which in its fifteen minutes seems almost a symphony at times. But the best came in the third-movement Scherzo, only four minutes long but a masterpiece of colorful string writing inspired by Goethe’s Faust, but in which I have never succeeded to finding the “turbulent witches’ Sabbath” mentioned in the program notes. In fact, its Allegro leggierissimo (“fast and very light”) is a quiet miracle, and the eight players gave it a gorgeously sensitive reading. Thereafter, in the fourth and final movement, Mendelssohn shows his love of Bach and Beethoven in more or less incessant counterpoint, all done at lightning speed. The Emersons and Calidores made it seem easy.

Exeunt Emersons

Less than 24 hours later, the Emersons returned to the CMNW stage, this time at Portland State’s Lincoln Performance Hall, for an afternoon concert on their own, the last of their CMNW performances during the 2016-2017 season, during which they were official performers in residence. As during their previous concert, they began with Purcell, this time with his Fantasia No. 8, a four-minute piece that begins quiet and slow, enjoys a brief and faster fugue, then subsides. The program’s pièce de résistance then followed: Shostakovich’s brilliant String Quartet No. 8 from 1960, by far the most popular and frequently played of his fifteen.

This 36-minute composition in five movements begins with the first of three Largos, a lovely and languid five-minute opener, and then jumps into an energetic Allegro molto (“very fast’) that ends in a charming little waltz. A following Allegretto (“pretty fast”) and a second Largo restate a persistent theme that Shostakovich had used in his Cello Concerto No. 1, composed the year before (think C-A-E-D#). The fifth-movement Largo then reprises the first-movement theme. Throughout, the Emerson String Quartet played with almost magical attention to this wonderful piece’s beauties. It’s hard to imagine a better performance.

The Emerson Quartet played Shostakovich, Purcell and Beethoven at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

After the intermission, the Emersons followed with a second Purcell fantasia, this one only three minutes long, before tackling Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 131, the composer’s fourteenth, composed in 1826, only a year before he died. Like all of Beethoven’s late compositions, this quartet pushes the boundaries of its genre. It’s always been fascinating to wonder that if Beethoven had just five more years of reasonably healthy life (he died at 57), what sort of piano sonatas, symphonies, and string quartets he might have composed. In seven movements, the fourteenth quartet already stretches the form from the traditional four, and Beethoven is careful to justify each movement with its own mood and themes. The expressive first movement Adagio shows Beethoven’s admiration for Bach in its fugal structure and also moves from key to key before giving way to a sprightly and lighthearted little dance in the second movement. The third movement, although fast, seems to exist for the same reason baroque second movements often did, to move us from the preceding mood and key to the that of the next movement, which shows Beethoven’s skill at theme and variation, a technique he used in all genres. The fifth-movement Presto (“very fast”) is somewhat playful in character before the pensive minor key of the sixth-movement Adagio, which seems to exist to bring us to the extended seven-minute final movement, which moves at a good clip before expiring.

Having recorded all fifteen of the string quartets in a sumptuous seven-CD package, the Emerson Quartet know their Beethoven well. Here, they made especially good music in the transitions from slow to fast and fast to slow, and their tone throughout suited each of Beethoven’s many moods: now soft and lyrical, now creamy and romantic, now angular and nervous. It was a wonderful last piece and performance for the Emersons’ long Portland residency. May they return again soon!

Women’s Works

Another concert three days later introduced another ensemble to CMNW audiences. In a concert called Generations: Clara Schumann to Gabriela Frank, the focus was again on female composers, as it had been in several previous Summer Festival concerts and would be repeatedly during the following week. The featured ensemble were also females: the Claremont Trio, consisting of the violinist and cellist sisters Emily and Julia Bruskin and pianist Andrea Lam. The four composers on the program ranged from the middle-19th century to the 21st.

First up was the little known but very gifted Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979), who, as the program notes opined, had two strikes against her: she was a woman and she was a violist. Despite these disadvantages, she nevertheless became Charles Villiers Stanford’s first female student at England’s Royal College of Music. She described her Sonata for Viola and Piano, from 1919, as “my one little whiff of success.”

Nokuthula Ngwenyama and Andrea Lam played music by Rebecca Clarke at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

A substantial 24-minute piece in three movements, this sonata deserves a wider audience. Played here by CMNW violist Nokuthula Ngwenyama and the Claremont’s pianist Andrea Lam, it showed itself to be a gorgeous composition. The program notes by Elizabeth Schwarz cited Claude Debussy, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Ernest Bloch as music influences on Clarke’s music. I couldn’t hear the Bloch, but the lyricism of Debussy and Vaughan Williams were plain enough. More evident was Maurice Ravel’s kaleidoscopic sound world. Both players excelled here, but I agreed with others in the audience that the grand piano was opened too wide, and that even in the friendly acoustic of the Alberta Rose Theatre, the balance between violist and pianist was not ideal.

A much more recent piece came next, from another British composer, Helen Grime, who was born in England but considers herself Scottish. Ms. Grime, not yet 40 years old, enjoys a fair amount of success in Britain. Having listened to as much of her music as I could on YouTube, I would say that her piece in this concert, Three Whistler Miniatures from 2011, is typical of her style, which is reminiscent of a compositional “school” just going out of fashion around the year she was born, 1981. I would characterize this as an Uptown (New York) sound, also practiced in England and France in the 1960s and ’70s, heavy on dissonance, verging continuously on atonality, austere and distinctly abstruse. While other composers of her generation and even somewhat older have chosen other directions (Thomas Adès and James MacMillan, to name just two), Ms. Grime seems to have found her musical home in a place that has been exhaustively explored and found sterile. Her ten-minute piece, apparently inspired by three drawings by the American painter James McNeill Whistler, was cleanly and clearly played by the Claremont Trio, but they couldn’t really make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

The Claremont Trio played music by Gabriela Lena Franks and Helen Grime at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

A great deal more successful was Four Folk Songs from 2012 by Gabriela Lena Frank, born in 1972. Inspired by and suffused with the music of the composer’s mother’s native country, Peru, it presents in its four “songs” Ms. Frank’s version of that country’s connection to Spain, of its children playing in the streets, of the omnipresent guitar-and-vocalist duo that serenades listeners in cafes and pubs, and of the sounds of the ruins of a pre-Incan site at Chavín de Huantar. Thoroughly contemporary in musical language, which is to say tonal but rhythmically and melodically exploratory, this piece nevertheless emerges as a richly colored and multi-faceted portrait of a real (and imagined) place.

Clara Schumann’s musical career was chiefly as a performer: she was one of the finest pianists of her time, not quite a Liszt or a Chopin but by all accounts a close third. She managed a good deal of concertizing well into her eighth decade despite having to deal with a mentally disturbed genius husband (Robert Schumann) and eight children. She also managed to write music, although not a great deal. Her Piano Trio Op. 17, composed when she was just 27, is her most substantial composition. In four movements spanning 28 minutes, she demonstrates her skill at lyrical writing in the third-movement Andante as well as her ability at handling two themes simultaneously in the first-movement Allegro. Her second-movement Scherzo shows that she can handle playful music, and the fourth movement proves that like other composers of her time (Mendelssohn above all) she had studied her Bach and knew how to construct a fugue.

The Claremont Trio played Schumann’s piece, and the Frank songs before it, extremely well, with perfect intonation and ensemble work and genuine feeling. And it was a great treat to hear so much good music written by women. Congrats to Chamber Music Northwest for making this a centerpiece of its 47th annual summer festival.

Recommended recordings

• Purcell Chacony
The RIAS Amadeus Quartet Recordings Vol. 4: Modernism, Amadeus Quartet (Audite AUDITE21429), 1950.

• Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 14, String Quartet No. 8, and Octet
The Beethoven Quartet (Doremi DHR7911), 1956-1974.

• Mendelssohn
Hausmusik London (Veritas 7243 5 61809 2), 1993.

• Purcell Fantasias
Hesperion XX, Jordi Savall conducting (Alia Vox 9859) 2008.

• Beethoven
Beethoven: The Late String Quartets, Guarneri Quartet (RCA Victor Gold Seal 60458-2-RG), 1968.

• Clarke
Zimmermann & Gerstein: Sonatas for Viola and Piano, Vol. 1, Tabea Zimmermann (viola) and Kirill Gerstein (piano) (Myrios MYR004), 2010.

• Grime
YouTube .Claremont Trio / Helen Grime / Three Whistler Miniatures / 1

• Frank
YouTube.

• Schumann
C. Schumann — Piano Trio & Schubert, Rosamunde Quartet, String Trio (Avi Music AVI8553294), 2013.

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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3 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    Shosty is the greatest & most important composer of 20th century string quartets?
    Really? Other than from you, I’ve never heard this proclamation – care to explain how & why you believe this?
    Most serious musicians & composers that I know accord that honor to Bartok & his 6 quartets.
    But, ultimately, who can REALLY make this call & vut duh L difference does it make anyway?

  2. Jeff Winslow says:

    The classic uptown NY crowd never would have accepted Grime’s Three Whistler Miniatures. Way too much rhythmic drive, way too much atmosphere, way too many repeated pitches and intervals. Grime’s piece, to my ear, while not tonal in any obvious way, is a direct and often startlingly lovely outgrowth of the loosening of theoretical strictures starting the last decade or two of the 20th century. See, for example, the Ligeti Etudes for piano, or closer to home both musically and geographically, since Adès is mentioned, his “Traced Overhead”.

  3. bob priest says:

    Ah, Ligeti’s Etudes! I’m happy to note that even Yuja Wang is now regularly playing several of them – check out her amazing performances on YT. Here’s hoping that Yuja will include Ligeti on her PDX recital next year . . .

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