MOZART & SAARIAHO
Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, St. Francis Auditorium
The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival opened its 2022 season with two well-crafted and strongly executed programs. I found the second more satisfying overall than the first, due to a surprisingly intense reaction to one of the first program’s standard works.
by Kaija Saariaho Semafor for eight instruments, a co-commission with Carnegie Hall, opened the July 18 concert. The unusual spelling of semaphore comes from the composer’s admiration for a series of works by Finnish visual artist Ernst Mether-Borgström of the same name, which he considered “traffic signs in our urban jungle”, according to Saariaho’s program notes.
The 13-minute piece alternates between relatively calm passages and much more vigorous passages based on glissandi passages. The composer describes the vigorous passages as “joyful”, even if they sounded more like juxtapositions of non-tonal urban sounds, a kind of “An American in Paris” of the 21st century.
The meaning of the road signs was clear; the piece evoked the feeling of strolling uptown New York through the Theater District or Midtown, with the alternation of frequent street crossings and (relatively) quieter mid-block sections. James Gaffigan, in Santa Fe to direct Tristan and Isolda at the Santa Fe Opera, conducted a string quartet, flute, clarinet, bassoon, and piano in what sounded like an authoritatively performed rendition of the score.
The most satisfying piece overall was Mozart’s Piano Quartet in E flat major. Mozart didn’t quite invent the genre, but he was the first to perfect it, giving equal weight to all four instruments in his G minor quartet of 1785 and this one a year later.
Its performance here captured the fresh, almost improvisational quality it would have had in what was almost certainly its first performance, in a guest room where Mozart was staying in Vienna, furnished with an “excellent fortepiano” and played by the composer and three friends.
The piece has a kind of relaxed grandeur, and the players here – Paul Huang, violin, Che-Yen Chen, viola, Peter Stumpf, cello, and Nicolas Namoradze, piano – have adapted it perfectly to St. Francis Auditorium, with really calm pianissimos, well-mastered dynamic contrasts, and a real sense of intimate exchange.
The delicate touch and rhythmic variety of Namoradze’s solos were particularly noteworthy. The final allegretto had a genuinely playful quality, with fast piano tracks played “like oil”, as Mozart had always hoped, and a charming little exchange “Anything you can do, I can do better ” between the violin and the piano towards the end.
In 1874, César Franck heard the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde and the experience greatly influenced much of his later music, including the Piano Quintet in F minor, written in 1879. It is a large, dramatic, even ostentatious piece, full of thick Wagnerian chromatic harmonies and extremes of volume, presented in sonata form, except in the first two movements. Franck also deploys a sort of cyclical unification, with the themes of the first movement returning in different forms in the second and third.
I started by admiring Franck’s craft but I quickly got tired of his repeated efforts after small and big effects, especially big ones. (You know you’re in trouble when a movement is marked “Slowly, with a lot of feeling.”) Despite the cyclical unity of the work, there were also themes that seemed to arise from a very different piece, then fade away, and it’s often so pompous that I ended up noting, “It’s a symphony-sized sausage stuffed into a chamber music case.”
It is not a hit at the festival for the programming of the Franck quintet — it is an important piece of chamber music from the romantic era — nor for the performers — the pianist Zoltán Fejérvári and the Escher String Quartet — who played with tireless energy and total commitment. The quintet has many fans, including a large part of the audience at Monday night’s performance. I’m just not among them.
The July 20 program included Gabriel Fauré’s Sonata in A major for violin and piano and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Trio in E minor, as well as the Requiem: Songs for Sue.
The requiem dates from 2006 and commemorates Knussen’s wife, Sue Freedman. Although they separated at the time of his death in 2003, they remained close and the piece is a heartfelt, loving, and unsentimental keepsake.
Its creation intrigued the composer. “I have no idea where the notes for this piece came from,” Knussen said. The Guardian in 2006. “I have no raison d’être for them, I just wrote it from memory. It was very strange. Bizarre at least for a composer famous for missing deadlines while compulsively revising works in progress.
Knussen initially thought he should never be publicly executed (“It’s very personal”), fearing it might seem indulgent. His concern for his personal nature actually reflects one of his strengths. There’s an emotional directness here that isn’t evident in much of his often scintillating and painstakingly crafted work.
Sue’s four songs are settings of poems by Antonio Machado (“Los Ojos”/The Eyes) and WH Auden (“If I Could Tell You”), as well as a quatrain from “Requiem for a Friend”. by Rainer Maria Rilke. The text of the first song was more controversial in some quarters. Remembering that Emily Dickinson had written many poems to her sister Sue, Knussen read her entire poetic output of over 1,700 in a week, copying sections of 35 and creating her own text from them. ‘they. The Dickinson purists weren’t amused.
Soprano Tony Arnold does not have a beautiful conventional voice, but she sings with great expressiveness and admirable diction; most of the text was easily understandable without reference to the printed document. John Storgårds skilfully conducted a 15-player chamber orchestra in which low instruments predominate, reflecting Knussen’s desire for the sonic palette to be predominantly autumnal.
Requiem: Songs for Sue It’s not long – around 13 minutes of performance – but it has a powerful cumulative quality in its short duration and feels like repeated listens would be rewarded.
Shostakovich’s Piano Trio performance was a great reminder of why digital music can never quite match live performance. I found it emotionally involving when listening to recordings, but it was devastating to hear it in person, at least as performed here by Storgårds – who swapped his conductor’s baton for the violin – with Stumpf and Namoradze.
Shostakovich wrote the play in 1944, partly in memory of his best friend, Ivan Sollertinsky, who died at an early age, and partly in response to newly discovered atrocities committed by the Nazis against Jews and Roma in Eastern Europe. East. death camps like Treblinka.
Piano trios often begin with a rapid movement, but that is not the case here; the opening is not only slow but enervating, with a cello solo in very high and harmonic notes. Eventually the violin joins in, playing lower notes below, and finally the piano. The short second movement, marked Allegro con brio (Fasting with vigor), is at times demonic and at times fiery.
The slow third movement begins with a series of deep grand piano chords which are then repeated as the violin and cello play haunting melodies above. This leads directly into the smashing finale, a quirky dance of death that features a distinctly Jewish melody from the piano – almost certainly a reference to reports that the Nazis made Jews dance next to their graves before executing them.
The tension builds throughout the movement, which ends with a return of cello harmonics and grand piano chord themes, followed by a decrease into nothingness with a few slightly plucked chords. No praise for the performers could be higher than the long silence that followed the final notes, though they no doubt also enjoyed the resounding applause that finally broke out.
Fauré’s sonata for violin and piano opened the program. It is a relatively old and very charming work, with a lot of melodic and harmonic variety. It’s also surprisingly passionate and dramatic, especially for a composer to whom the term “soft” is so often attached as a descriptor. Violinist Huang and pianist Fejérvári gave the sonata a persuasive reading, with Huang’s heart on the sleeve playing particularly effectively in conveying its emotional component.