From the Sublime to the Ridiculous (Twice) at Chamber IV



Wednesday’s Chamber IV program at Dock Street sported an up-and-down sequence of stark contrasts: two sunny, funny, and lighthearted numbers (host Geoff Nuttall called them “silly”) alternating with works of deepest profundity and solemnly soulful character.  After welcoming the packed house to “the Mecca of chamber music,” Nuttall introduced us to the opening work: a piece from the latter category.

Surprisingly, that work was by Mozart: a composer whom we associate mostly with sunny grace and charm. But this piece — the String Quartet in D Minor, K. 421 — is an exception, noted for its minor-key drama and somber grief. It’s one of the famous cycles of six quartets that Mozart dedicated to his great friend and mentor, Josef Haydn (who, you will recall, invented the string quartet form). Then Nuttall and the rest of his trusty SLSQ sat down and proceeded to tear their audience’s collective heart out with it.

From the tense and distressed musings of the opening allegro and the wistful, despairing strains of the slow movement to the final set of edgy, gut-wrenching variations, no emotion of the serious or sadder sorts was left out. Even the minuet was surprisingly bleak and driven, for what’s supposed to be a lighthearted dance. Only the movement’s central trio section (a gentle country Ländler) offered some measure of fleeting relief. Hey, great music needn’t be happy all the time; life sure isn’t.

But the gloom and doom soon lifted with the next number, a wonderful bit of musical buffoonery: German composer Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. But wait, that’s a piece that he originally wrote as a substantial tone poem for HUGE orchestra. So, what gives? Well, a gentleman with the unlikely last name of Hasenöhrl (literally translated from the German as “little rabbit-ear”) condensed and rearranged it for five instruments, calling it a “grotesque musicale;” and that’s the version we heard here.

Even the original orchestral work is a masterpiece of musical humor, recounting the life and misdeeds of a legendary Medieval German “Commedia del’ Arte”-style prankster/gangster who pulled one too many practical jokes on the wrong people, and met his doom at the gallows for it. Todd Palmer’s clarinet was the sly and cunning “hero,” joined by co-conspirators Jennifer Frautschi (violin), Peter Kolkay (bassoon), Eric Ruske (horn) and Tony Manzo (double bass). Together, they hammed it up royally, putting big smiles on everybody’s faces.  

From there, we got back into more profound musical territory with music by French Catholic mystic and composer Olivier Messiaen: a movement from his Quartet for the End of Time, probably his best-known work. It was written and first performed in 1941 at the Stalag 8 Nazi prisoner-of-war camp (he had been captured when France fell early in WW II). Three of his fellow prisoners were also musicians: a cellist, a clarinetist and a violinist; and there was a battered piano available to Messiaen, a skilled keyboard player. So those were the instruments he composed the piece for. The first performance, on old, beat-up instruments, was done before an audience of fellow prisoners and camp guards.

The excerpt played here was the fifth of the work’s eight movements: the one entitled “Praise to the eternity of Jesus,” involving only the cello and the piano. Chamber cello darling Alisa Weilerstein and piano pundit Inon Barnatan did the honors, but (sorry, Inon) this one belonged mostly to Alisa. While Barnatan had little more than simple supporting chords to deliver, Alisa’s playing unfolded in long-breathed, heartfelt lines of slow and subdued yet achingly ecstatic melody. Despite its avowed sacred inspiration, I wonder if the grief and desolation of war had something to do with it as well. I also wonder if I’ve ever heard such ethereally soft and spiritually pregnant playing from a cello before.

Finally, it was back to the ridiculous with fellow Frenchman Francis Poulenc’s saucy, swinging Sextet for Piano and Winds. Only it wasn’t really ridiculous; Poulenc (like Messiaen) was a devout Catholic, and was quite capable of writing deeply profound music (check out his sacred choral music sometime). But in this piece, he was just having fun, in the Gallic manner. He was quite the archetypal French character, given to sassy musical sarcasm and playful humor. American-style jazz had taken Paris by storm in previous years, and frolicsome Francis (like his other French contemporaries, including Ravel) didn’t hesitate to emulate.

All of this year’s resident wind whizzes (O’Connor, Smith, Kolkay, Palmer and Ruske) were on hand for this one — plus Mr. Barnatan, this time with a much more substantial piano part to play. And they had a total blast with it, realizing Poulenc’s flippant musical hijinks with consummate collective skill, Gallic flair and obvious delight. Thus ended the dizzying roller-coaster ride in this, the Chamber Series’ most varied and wide-ranging program thus far.  

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