Three at Tannery: David Finckel and Wu Han; Todd Palmer, Elizabeth Futral, and Ran Dank; and the Harlem String Quartet

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Wu Han and David Finckel. Photo Christian Steiner.
Wu Han and David Finckel. Photo Christian Steiner.

Tannery Pond Concerts

September 22, 2012, 6 pm

David Finckel, Cello
Wu Han, pianist

Beethoven – Sonata in G minor, Opus 5, No. 2, for cello and piano
Brahms – Sonata in E minor, Opus 38, for cello and piano
Debussy – Sonata I, in D minor, for cello and piano
Shostakovich – Sonata in D minor, Opus 40, for cello and piano

On looking over this program of familiar works for cello and piano, the last thing one would call it is challenging. Yet, this past Sunday evening, David Finckel and Wu Han made it into something extremely challenging and enlightening. The duo — a husband-wife team, as is well-known — put so much feeling and energy into each piece that each became a world unto itself, formed by such radically different personalities, that it seemed miraculous that the players could make the transition from one to the other within a single evening. As for listening to such performances, I found myself so deeply immersed in these varied planets, that the journey between them seemed vast. Finckel and Wu Han approached them as differing thought processes in different languages. Even though it is obvious enough that Brahms spoke Beethoven, it seemed here to be a highly evolved dialect, from a different city, with its own highly characteristic street slang, which gave its own intense coloration to the civilized poetic diction of the compositions.

By 1796, when Beethoven wrote his Op. 5 Cello Sonatas, he already had some remarkable works behind him, not least the Op. 2 Piano Sonatas, Nos. 2 and 3, but the two cello sonatas are the first of his astonishing creations, like the Third and the Fifth Symphonies, that give one the impression that nothing like them had ever existed before. As David Finckel and Wu Han played the G Minor, it seemed huge in proportion and range of expression. It is in fact the psychological scope of the work, the intensity of its moods and their dramatic sequencing within the formal structures of the three movements which make it unique. (They are for that matter the earliest sonatas for solo cello and piano in the standard repertoire.) The pattern of a solemn slow movement followed by a sonata form and a concluding dance movement was well-established and Haydn developed it to a high level. Haydn had written works for solo cello and orchestra, but in chamber music, he preferred the current evolution of the trio sonata, in which the cello was still partly contained within its continuo role, supporting the keyboard’s bass line, while the violin followed the treble lines. Considered in literal terms, there is little in Beethoven’s G Minor Sonata that isn’t within the bounds of Haydn’s Sturm und Drang idiom. Yet, it makes the impression of being an exceptionally ambitious work, written for a virtuoso of extraordinary abilities. In fact Beethoven went on tour in 1796 and played before King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia at Potsdam. The king was a keen enthusiast of the cello, which he played, and employed one of the great cellists of the time, Jean-Pierre Duport, as the lead cello in his orchestra and as a teacher. Beethoven’s friend Ferdinand Ries reported that Beethoven played the Cello Sonatas together with him, although some think that it was actually his brother, Jean-Louis, better-known to us today, who joined Beethoven on this occasion, which clearly inspired the young composer to create a work of exceptional originality and energy.

As in the later “Ghost” Trio, Beethoven combined a movement in the familiar classical style with an experiment, as well as a synthesis of the two methods. The “Ghost” begins with a classical movement, continues with a Romantic musical adventure, and concludes with a synthesis. The group who played this work at Tannery this summer (Gabriela Martinez, Elena Urioste, Carter Brey), however, turn a wrong turn in adopting a relentlessly rigid, rapid tempo for that classical first movement, leaving the listener in a rather harried state for the eery slow movement. In the Cello Sonata, Beethoven began with an elaborate excursion into new territory in the introductoryAdagio.

Wu Han’s and Finckel’s performance was not only large in scale, it was extremely detailed. While always maintaining the momentum of the music, they were also able to dwell in the moment, projecting the unique harmonic, acoustical, and dramatic qualities of every bar. Phrasing was both nuanced and strong. This made the innovative qualities of Beethoven’s writing all the more vivid and opened our ears for further adventures.

In the same spirit, the Brahms E Minor Sonata, an hommage to J. S. Bach, came off as a large-scale work, full of variety and invention. They played with total absorption, closely following the line of Brahms’ argument in the first movement with a broad tempo, which let them hone in on the harmonic wanderings of the thematic material. Just as the main subject, which shows a general resemblance to the main subject of Die Kunst der Fuge, passes fluidly from the minor to the relative major in its central part — a gentle oscillation which continues throughout the movement, the cello and the piano engage in a dialogue which shifts between a lyrical duet and a more intellectual, wilful harmonic argument, even within the exposition itself. As Finckel and Wu Han play it, the extended melody in the major seems to open up a vista of some flat, bleak, but ultimately comforting land by the sea. Allusions to Bach’s passagework in his solo cello works are also present. The long, broad line, the contrasts, and the extensive development and coda give the feeling that one has travelled a long way in the movement and that the themes have been explored exhaustively, even though the development focuses only on part of it. The sublime final theme, which floats between B Major and the minor, balancing the first theme, which oscillates in the opposite direction, offers rich emotional possibilities in development, and the musicians explored this deeply from within.

The ensuing dance movement is built on a simpler rhythmic foundation, but moves similarly between modes in its second half, its trio dissolving into less contained, more ambiguous flowing rhythms and phrases. The final movement is a rapid sonata form with fugal passages based on Bach’s Contrapunctus 13 in his Art of the Fugue. A lyrical subject in G Major breaks up the counterpoint until it begins to rush into a stretto which leads directly back to the fugal material, and from there it is developed even further. Finckel and Wu Han addressed the movement with rapidity and a great deal of energy, leaving the audience excited but drained at the end.

The expansive elegiac moods of the Brahms prepared the way for the Debussy after the break. In it a rhapsodic introductory theme leads into a clearly-defined, mildly dreamy subject, followed by a more monumental passage. Finckel played this first movement in a most heartfelt way, with a feeling for its wandering harmonies, which made it almost seem as if he were composing it himself as he played. They played the second movement serenade with its extensive pizzicato passages with terrific virtuosity and nuance of tone color and tempo. Finckel negotiated the tangle of exuberant and depressive moods in the final bars with poise. In the final movement, Animé, the manic spirit seems to have taken over, severely interrupted, however, by a dark central section, before the final rush in wholeheartedly affirmative high spirits — a vivid conclusion to a mercurial work.

The Shostakovich Cello Sonata, an early work marked by its politically acceptable accessibility, tunefulness, and ironic cheerfulness seemed to offer relief from the intensities of the first three works, but it has its own undercurrents — a moody, passionate opening subject in the first movement and a lyrical, almost sentimental second subject — which could well reflect the composer’s turbulent emotional life during a intense affair, which led to the temporary breakup of his marriage. In his fluid interweaving of the two instruments, the intimacy of the musicians enabled them to interact with a special directness and immediacy. Shostakovich’s chilling transformation of that sweet second subject in the coda which ends in a somber march, brings the movement up to another level, and they played it most affectingly. A boisterous, virtuosic Scherzo followed, which they played zestfully, giving the audience over to the deeply melancholic, troubled slow movement. The work closes with a playful, ironic Allegro, a Russified excursion into the classical idiom, including parodistic conjurings of Haydn and Beethoven. The crisp, dry note on which the concert ended left the audience all on their feet, warmly and loudly applauding one of the richest and most rewarding concerts of the summer. Wu Han and David Finckel’s playing had been so involving, that an encore seemed superfluous, but there was a brief centenary tribute to Benjamin Britten, the March from his Cello Sonata, which they dispatched with impeccable technique and taste.

Todd Palmer and Elizabeth Futral in Ricky Ian Gordon's Orpheus and Eurydice, Poolside by the Long Beach Opera.
Todd Palmer and Elizabeth Futral in Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Eurydice, Poolside by the Long Beach Opera.

September 1st, Saturday, 8 pm
Todd Palmer, Elizabeth Futral, Ran Dank

Franz Peter Schubert – Piano Sonata in A major, D. 784
Three Songs:
Nun wer die Sehnsucht kennt, D877
Du bist die Ruh, D776 (Opus 59. No. 3)
Der Hirt auf dem Felsen. D965

Ricky Ian Gordon – Orpheus and Eurydice (A Song Cycle in two Acts. 2005)

At the beginning of the month the clarinetist Todd Palmer, pianist Ran Dank, and soprano Elizabeth Futral presented a remarkable concert revolving around Schubert. Schubert was at the center, even though the second half consisted of music by a living composer, Ricky Ian Gordon. This song cycle/opera owes its existence to Schubert, because Todd Palmer commissioned it as a companion piece to “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen,” the song for clarinet, soprano, and piano. The project itself presented some difficulties; Mr. Gordon suffered a tragic personal loss at the time; and it took some years to complete. When he finally got the idea for the subject and finished the work, it turned out to be much longer than its intended companion. Gordon produced a full treatment of Orpheus and Eurydice for the same forces as “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen.”

Ran Dank began the concert with Schubert’s “little” A Major Sonata, a three-movement work smaller in scale  than the great A Major Sonata he composed in his final months. Its first movement begins with an intimate lyrical theme, which in the course of the movement Schubert worked into some fairly athletic, even monumental gestures as well as some surprising harmonic treatments, both of which presage the scope of his great final keyboard works. Ran Dank, a young Israeli pianist based in New York, had definite views of his own on how to play the sonata. He adopted a fairly fairly active tempo and spun out the melody in a long line above it. With the development, he slowed down a little, bearing into Schubert’s harmonic surprises and large-scale gestures in order to allow them their full potential. Dank was clearly interested in the forward-looking, more challenging aspects of the sonata. As beautifully as he phrased the singing lines, he kept his full concentration on how Schubert developed them into powerful gestures and dark ruminations, as well as their place in the overall structure. This applied to the slow movement with its similar balancing of lyricism and deep meditation, as well as the final rondo, in which he explored every contrast to the blithe high spirits of its opening. This was a substantial reading of the work, which I found thoroughly satisfying. Ran Dank’s technique is quite impressive and it gave him musical control when he needed it.

Three songs ensued. First Elizabeth Futral sang one of Schubert’s Mignon-Lieder from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt.” Ms. Futral often uses a wide vibrato, which, combined with her need to warm up, led to rather vague intonation in Schubert’s exposed, pure line. Fortunately she was in better shape for “Der Hirt,” which also offered her a more active melodic line, with jumps and ornaments which suited her technique. Her approach to this work proved fascinating and truly rewarding. Rather than dwell on its pretty tunes and the conventional springtime moods of some sections, as many singers do, she focused on its expressive and dramatic qualities. Her performance was full of marked tempo changes and striking contrasts. Her challenging, original interpretation was one of the high points of the evening.

Between those two songs, Todd Palmer played “Du bist die Ruh’” as a song without words on his clarinet. This was also fascinating, because it showed his almost obsessive study of Schubert’s melodies and their phrasing. He has clearly thought about this a great deal, and his individual approach to the shaping of these splendid creations was persuasive and even revelatory, and his elegant execution of ornaments was also felicitous.

In Orpheus and Eurydice, Ricky Ian Gordon’s idiom proved to be entirely of our age, although its reliance on melody makes it accessible to a wide audience and is sympathetic to this aspect of Schubert’s music without being imitative. The musicians used the full space of the Tannery to act out the song cycle as an hour-long opera, with Ms. Futral portraying Eurydice and providing some narrative (text by Mr. Gordon), while Todd Palmer played Orpheus with his clarinet alone, extending the musical expression with supple movements of his body and even dancing. Allowing Orpheus only a wind instrument to express himself was highly effective in showing the mythical bard’s total absorption in and identification with his art.

One of the wonders of American opera is its versatility. One can find a modern American opera in virtually any size or shape, one which will work on virtually any size stage or no stage at all. I heard that Gordon’s Orpheus has been performed around a swimming pool!

And it is an engaging and touching work, although it could stand some trimming in its first half. Much of this is devoted to the couple’s joyful prancing about meadows and gathering flowers — not my idea of a very promising relationship with a loved one. (My wife disagrees!) With some tightening the first part would approach the density of the second, tragic section, and the whole would be more satisfying. Ricky Ian Gordon, his work and the performers met with enthusiastic, well-deserved applause at the end.

Harlem String Quartet: Ilmar Gavilan,  Melissa White, Juan Miguel Hernandez, Paul Wiancko
Harlem String Quartet: Ilmar Gavilan, Melissa White, Juan Miguel Hernandez, Paul Wiancko

Harlem String Quartet
August 4th, Saturday, 8 pm

Ludwig van Beethoven  –  String Quartet  in D major, Opus 18, No. 3
Armando Anthony “Chick” Corea – String Quartet No. 1
Joaquín Turina – L’Oración del Torero
Maurice Ravel – String Quartet in F major

This summer was especially rich in string quartets. All the New England festivals, especially Music Mountain, offered a wealth of music from the legendary groups, like the Tokyo Quartet, who also played for Tannery, and the Emerson Quartet, “mid-career” quartets like the Borromini and the Brentano, and relative newcomers like the Harlem String Quartet. It was a joy to become acquainted with this immensely gifted and musical ensemble, who had their own, entirely personal approach to this demanding art form.

The Harlem is not the only quartet to open their repertoire to crossover music and jazz. The string quartet, the most severely classical of genres, turns out to be surprisingly sympathetic to jazz, if it’s done well. The Quatuor Ébène, another young quartet, played jazz improvisations both at SPAC and at Tanglewood this summer. Still the backbone of this Tannery concert was entirely in the classical mainstream, beginning with a quartet from Beethoven’s Op. 18 and concluding with Ravel’s early masterpiece.

The Harlem Quartet’s way with Beethoven was especially engaging. A standard approach to these early quartets is to play them in rather strict time, as certain older groups and conductors have approached quartets and symphonies of Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven. The players keep together by counting first and listening to each other second. The Harlem musicians, by the sound of it, keep together by listening to each other intently and through concerted muscular coordination they have developed by playing jazz and other improvisatory varieties of music together. The result is a flexible, immediate interaction which worked wonders for this early quartet of Beethoven. Their sunny warmth permeated the space between the notes throughout the work, bringing life to the quick movements and human breath to the slow movement.

Another aspect of the Harlem Quartet’s method is the independence of their playing. Each of them remains true to her or his own color, inflection, and pace. Juan Miguel Hernandez, for one, is a violist of impressive musicianship and a powerful temperament. He can just as readily ground the ensemble with steady rhythm and spot-on intonation as go his own way, as if he were letting loose on a jazz riff, and this applies as much to his Beethoven as his Ellington. He produces a robust dark sound from his instrument. Second violin Melissa White plays with an engaging, seemingly relaxed manner, produces a mellifluous tone, and shapes her phrases with elegance. First violinist Ilmar Gavilan is sensitive and responsive; when he has the melody, he sings. Paul Wiancko, the regular cellist, could not appear that night. he was replaced by Ismar Gomes, who seemed entirely at home with the others, playing with perfect coordination within the ensemble, impressive virtuosity, energy, and a handsome tonal range.

Chick Corea’s First String Quartet followed the Beethoven. The Harlem Quartet has been, so to speak, “adopted” by Corea and have played together with him on numerous occasions. Of course they played these four short movements with as much expression, sympathy, and commitment as one could want. The music itself was not uninteresting and was even appealing, but the segments were not really complete enough to be called movements any more than their summation could be called a “string quartet.” These were combined ideas of an overtly serious sort that amounted to no more than sketches, I thought. There was barely any development in the movements or within the themes, leaving quite a gulf between this essay and, say, Webern. However, I know I shouldn’t expect that here, and I did enjoy them, although I found them unsatisfying in equal measure. The Harlem Quartet have invested a great deal of time and energy into their work with Chick Corea. I believe they are on tour together now (October 2012). As long as they don’t get tangled up in Scientology, they should be all right.

Turina’s L’Oración del Torero is a brooding, Romantic piece, rich in texture. Spanish and South American music has become a mainstay of chamber music programs, providing an accessible twentieth-century idiom which has proven popular with audiences. It made for an effective bridge between the Corea and the Ravel. Joaquin Turina began his career as a composer of zarzuelas, but he met with no success. His solution was to go to Paris to study, where he attended the Schola Cantorum, the conservative, even antiquarian foundation of Vincent d’Indy. Falla and Albéniz, however, persuaded him to remain true to his Spanish roots and to seek inspiration in the popular music of his homeland. La oración del torero was wonderful material for the Harlem musicians: it was narrative in structure and atmospheric in color, replete with a rich texture of contrapuntal lines, which responded beautifully to their communally independent music-making.

Ravel wrote his Quartet in F Major when he was twenty-eight and still a student at the Conservatoire. Although it could be considered a work of his youth, it has remained popular and is accepted along with his mature work without justification. However, when he submitted it to the Conservatoire de Paris as well as for the Prix de Rome, it was roundly rejected by both institutions after its premiere on March 5, 1904. Its dedicatee, Gabriel Fauré thought it a total failure. Ravel left the Conservatoire in 1905 in the aftermath of this debacle. Claude Debussy, on the other hand, was captivated by the work and urged Ravel not to change a note of it. The Harlem Quartet launched into it with exceptional warmth and energy, capturing all its Schumannesque enthusiasm and balancing the earthy and the ethereal in its timbres.

As an encore, they played Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A-Train,” which became such a classic with Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. Each of the musicians took their riff in turn, giving us an idea of how they developed their individual approach to quartet playing, which is not totally unique to them, but one which they have fearlessly cultivated beyond most of their colleagues. The audience was delighted with the encore and everything that preceded it, and rightly so.

After the concluding concert of the season David Finckel addressed a few words to some supporters of Tannery Pond. He pointed out how crucial institutions are in keeping chamber music alive and that Tannery Pond was, in terms of the critical quality behind its presentations and the warmth and generosity of its support, occupied a place among the very best. How right he is!


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