Saturday, March 18, 2017 3pm (Coming up!)
A Domestic Relationship at the Keyboard
Brahms – Neue Liebeslieder Waltzes Op. 65 (a selection)
Schubert – Fantasia in F Minor
Philip Lasser – Madrigal Fanfare
Brahms – Sextet Op. 18
Brahms – Hungarian Dances No. 4, 5
The Lev-Evans Duo
Gili Melamed-Lev and Mark Evans, Piano
Off-season musical life is not as thin in the Hudson Valley as it is in the Berkshires, but, whatever the general situation, the Concerts at Camphill Ghent, founded and directed by pianist Gili Melamed-Lev, stand out for their exceptional quality, one month after another. As I have mentioned elsewhere, these concerts, which usually sell out weeks before the concert date, take place in the intimate performing arts hall of Camphill Ghent, a residential community for elders in Chatham, New York. This particular article will offer a preview of the upcoming March concert, which is actually based on an abbreviated version of the program the Lev-Evans Duo played at a house concert in Stockbridge last month, and reviews of two previous concerts at Camphill Ghent.
A glance over the programs will make it clear that Ms. Melamed-Lev’s endeavor is serious, intended to bring the very greatest music in the repertoire to its audiences. A major trio by Beethoven, an all-Brahms program, again consisting entirely of major works, and Schubert’s great Fantasie in F minor all set a high level for the audience and the distinguished musicians who participate.
I heard a short version of the upcoming March program at a house concert in Stockbridge. I can only assume that Gili Melamed-Lev and Mark Evans have been working together for some years to achieve the kind of fluency and unanimity that make their collaboration so memorable. Often, even with prominent duos, one hears belabored attacks and a general effortfulness in the playing makes their hard work all too apparent. One can almost hear them counting! The piano four hands and two piano repertoire was developed in a tradition of Hausmusik which belongs to an environment of domestic enjoyment. If the players don’t really enjoy playing together, the musical results will be as unrewarding for their audiences as it is for them. These two professionals have clearly drawn some pleasure from the many hours they have spent together. Specifically for the repertoire in these concerts, they have benefitted from residencies at the Avaloch Farm Music Institute in New Hampshire, which is intended to provide first-rate instruments and facilities, as well as peace and quiet, so that chamber musicians can concentrate on developing their repertoire. In this way Melamed-Lev and Evans have been able to bring their artistry to a point where is seems entirely natural, and as close to technically perfect as anyone needs.
Their program, as I heard it, and as they will offer it in fuller form on March 18, includes both light and serious Brahms in the Liebeslieder Waltzes, Hungarian Dances, and an arrangement by Brahms himself of his String Sextet, Opus 18, an early work, which is one of his most engaging and beautiful. The abridgment of the program I heard meant that they played only one movement of this piece, which is a rather long one. Brahms derived a plentiful income from the publication of his chamber music, which he often made available in different arrangements, some of which he made himself. The clarinet/viola sonatas are the best-known examples of this. The sextet’s peculiar combination of two violins, two violas, and two cellos offers a special sonority, inspired by Schubert’s great C Major Quintet, but it fares very well indeed in the piano four hands arrangement, especially as played by Lev and Evans, with their own sensitivity to color and texture. The Schubert’s great F Minor Fantasie was surely the high point of the private recital, as it will be of the larger program at Camphill. It is one of the composer’s greatest works. While he developed the traditional piano sonata in ways inspired by Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata, seeking out new grandeur of length and profundity, along with harmonic/developmental complexity, Schubert also sought to fuse the movements into a one-movement whole in his fantasies, which pointed towards the tone poem. His “Wanderer” Fantasy and G Major Sonata are examples of the transcendent music he achieved in this form for solo player, which he was in the process of inventing up to his death, as is this masterpiece for four hands. Schubert’s shifting from minor to major and back again, at first unstable and troubled, evolves into a dialogue and a resolution, which make this Fantasie something of an epic journey, as intimate and inward as it is. Lev and Evans gave an exceptionally probing and nuanced performance of the work, which should prove to be one of the highlights of the Camphill season.
Saturday, November 12, 2016, 3pm
The Supernatural, the Sacred and the Self
Piano Trios, Mendelssohn C Minor and Beethoven, Bolcom and Brahms
Beethoven – Piano trio in D Major, Op. 70, No. 1, “The Ghost”
William Bolcom – Capriccio
Brahms – Intermezzo from the FAE Sonata
Mendelssohn – Piano Trio in C minor, No. 2, Op. 66
Joanna Kurkowicz, Violin
Ronald Feldman, Cello
Doris Stevenson, Piano
Three artists familiar from their frequent appearances at Williams College, where all are artists-in-residence, violinist Joanna Kurkowicz, cellist Ronald Feldman, and pianist Doris Stevenson were at their very best in a program which included two masterpieces of the highest order by Beethoven and Mendelssohn, as well as Brahms’ Scherzo from the FAE Sonata and a light but finely crafted piece, as one would expect, by William Bolcom.
The two Op. 70 of 1807 Trios mark Beethoven’s return to a genre which had been a great favorite of his in his early career, one popular with amateur musicians for chamber reductions of orchestral works, for example his Second Symphony. His last formal efforts in the genre were in fact his Opus 1 of 1793. The Opus 70 trios he composed in the wake of his “Pastoral” Symphony, Op. 68 and the great cello sonata, Op. 69. The two outer movements of No. 1 in D Major tend to the bright and cheerful, as complex as the first movement is. The sort of harmonic and emotional chiaroscuro that operates in the cello sonata is present in the Trio as well, although in a more mercurial form. It was the somber, foreboding second movement in D Minor that inspired Beethoven’s pupil, Czerny, to give it its famous title, “Ghost,” saying that it reminded him of the ghost of Hamlet’s father. This comment is not too far off the mark, since Beethoven was discussing a Macbeth opera with his friend, the playwright Heinrich Collin. Some believe that the chilling music of the slow movement may be derived from sketches for the scenes with the “weyard sisters.” The strong contrasts in Beethoven’s music are balanced by close-knit interrelationships between the intervals and harmonic structure of the thematic material. These in turn establish a close relationship between the three movements. This performance excelled in making these essentials clear, and one could enjoy Beethoven’s music at a deep level, with a full appreciation of the work’s architecture. I had a sense that the pianist, Doris Stevenson, had taken the lead in this approach, aided by clear, expressive phrasing from Joanna Kurkowicz and a handsome tone, pure intonation, and a singing line from from Ronald Feldman. These were the primary characteristics of the playing that ensued.
The FAE Sonata is a collaborative work from 1853, organized by Robert Schumann, who composed the second movement, an Intermezzo, and the Finale. His pupil, Albert Dietrich, composed the first movement. This Sonata for violin and piano was intended as a gift for the violinist Joseph Joachim, who had adopted the phrase “frei aber einsam” (“free but lonely”) as his motto. Joachim, Dietrich, and Brahms were all in their early twenties, with Schumann, the respected mentor, roughly twice their age. Schumann proposed the offering when the three had come to Düsseldorf for a visit in October 1853. Joachim himself had appeared unexpectedly on the 14th. They all played together that evening and repaired to a nearby hotel for a late supper. Joachim had to leave for Hannover the next day, but he was due to return on the 27th to play a concert with Schumann on the podium. It was then they planned to present the sonata to him. The poet Bettina von Arnim and her grown-up daughter Gisela were in Düsseldorf for that occasion, most likely expressly to hear Joachim play in the public concert. As the work was presented to him, Gisela, dressed in peasant costume, pranced behind with an additional basket of flowers. Joachim in turn read the work through, and, when challenged, identified the three composers. He never played the sonata again, but kept the manuscript, allowing Brahms’s movement alone to be published many years later, in 1906. Brahms, unlike the others, avoided quoting the F-A-E motif, probably because he had just used it in his F minor sonata, Op. 5—thus, we can assume, providing Schumann with the stimulus for the joint work. The movement combines a galloping ostinato, actually recalling somewhat the scherzo of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony with climaxes of a broad, heroic character, along with an introspective minor/chromatic motif, and a lyrical trio. Kurkowicz and Stevenson played this with a fine sense of phrasing, energy and scalet.
Mendelssohn wrote his C minor piano trio in 1844/5, when his life was overshadowed by his grief at the death of his parents and his own declining health, which would give him only two more years to live. Accordingly somber, it shows his compositional powers at their mature height. Characteristically for this phase of his life, in his first movement, he reintroduces the sweet, lyrical second major-key theme in the coda in the tonic minor. With a dying fall, it introduces the stern final cadence. Stevenson, Kurkowicz, and Feldman could not have been stronger or more eloquent in this great work, one of Mendelssohn’s most important chamber works. Their warmth of tone, as well as rigorous grasp of structure made this program a substantial experience, with nothing let go half-way.
Saturday, February 11, 2017, 3pm
Brahms and the Spirit of Beethoven
Brahms – Violin Sonata in G Major No.1 Op.78
Brahms – Cello Sonata in E minor No.1 Op.38
Brahms – Piano Trio in C Major No.2 Op.87
Eugene Drucker, Violin
Roberta Cooper, Cello
Gili Melamed-Lev, Piano
On February 11, Eugene Drucker, co-principal violin of the Emerson Quartet, and his wife Roberta Cooper joined Gili Melamed-Lev for an even richer all-Brahms program. This carried further the Romantic threads of the November program to their full development in the maturity of the composer who was only twenty, when he wrote that tribute to Mendelssohn’s pupil, Joseph Joachim, who was to remain his friend—although not without difficulties—and was the dedicatee of his Violin and Double Concertos. This program cut a central course through Brahms’s chamber music for strings without winds, excluding the arrangements for viola of his two late clarinet sonatas, showing a vast range of his musical invention.
Brahms wrote the reflective Violin Sonata in G Major No.1 Op.78 in 1878 and 79 while summering in a lakeside resort he especially loved. The mood is gentle, even elegiac on occasion, and reflects the composer’s closeness to nature, if more in mood than literally—or perhaps not, since he incorporated themes from two songs about the most inward of natural experiences, the rain”Regenlied” and “Nachklang,” Op. 59, inspiring the title “Regensonate” for this work.
The earlier (1862/1865) Cello Sonata in E minor No.1 Op. 38 arises from his deep interest in counterpoint and the music of Bach, another region of his musical interests—one markedly different from the lyricism he cultivated in his songs, both equally essential to his art throughout his career. In fact he regarded the reconciliation and intermingling of the two as one of his major tasks. Beethoven had established the piano-cello combination as a vehicle for fugue in the finale of his Sonata Op. 102, No. 2 in D Major. Brahms in fact overtly intended the sonata to be an hommage to Bach, basing the main theme of the first movement and the third movement respectively on Contrapunctus 4 and 13 of Bach’s Art of Fugue. The third movement begins fugally, moving with the second subject into a treatment more like the sonata form, with fugal passages and of course the first theme recurring, up to a contrapuntal coda. Roberta Cooper played the work with energy, decisive rhythm, and beautiful tone—sweet and open on the top, rich and tawny below—rather than the somewhat dry approach some cellists favor in it, perhaps overly reverent of the music’s Baroque roots. She showed special intelligence, variety, and subtlety in her phrasing. This performance was fully inhabited by the Romanticism of Brahms’ time, although the contrapuntal lines were perfectly clear and well-defined. Ms. Melamed-Lev was a truly sympathetic partner in the endeavor and an equal to the cellist, as Brahms intended.
The concert closed with Brahms’ Trio in C Major, Op. 87, an extroverted, large-scale work he wrote in 1882 in Bad Ischl. (All of the works on the program seem to have been written during the summer.) The physical energy, lyrical expression, and sensitivity of all three players did full justice to this widely varied work. Mr. Drucker, who also plays concerti, has a penchant for tasteful bravura in his chamber work, and this added to the color and excitement of the Trio, bringing this substantial program (“all main courses,” as described by Ms. Melamed-Lev) to a close.
I should also mention the musicians’ pithy introductions, which are traditional at these concerts. These can include formal analysis, Mr. Drucker’s favorite approach, with a view to the harmonic structure of a work, or they can take a biographical course, like Ms. Cooper, or they can be more evocative of what a piece may specifically mean to the audience, like Ms. Melamed-Lev’s, and this is not surprising, because she knows the audience. Whatever form they may take, these introductions are much appreciated.