The Porter Center at Brevard College was host to an eclectic program of chamber works by faculty members of the Brevard Music Center Summer Institute and Festival. The offerings were Bach’s Partita, BWV 1013, originally for transverse flute and performed by saxophonist Joseph Lulloff; Saint-Saëns’s Septet for Trumpet, String Quintet and Piano, Op. 65, performed by Timothy Christie and Amanda Schubert (violins), Anna Joiner (viola), Alistair MacRae (cello), Craig Brown (double bass), Neal Berntsen (trumpet), and Timothy Ehlen (piano); and Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115 with Steve Cohen (clarinet), J. Patrick Rafferty and Byron Tauchi (violins), Scott Rawls (viola), and Ann Cohen (cello). The rewards for attending these concerts are high — not only does one hear the highest quality of chamber playing around, but along with standard works, those that are less familiar.
The program opened with the Bach, played by Lulloff from the Porter Center’s balcony. The suite of four movements unfolded in the traditional dance movements of Allemande, Corrente, Sarabande, and replacing the Gigue, a Bourrée anglaise. Lulloff’s interpretation was more akin to a rhapsodic fantasia, with freely flowing melodic lines that broadened at cadential points. In fact, it was the melodic trajectories of his playing that were so mesmerizing, not the stylization of each dance. By the final movement, the strong pulse one associates with dance music was there, undergirding his fantastic melodic shapings.
The Saint-Saëns Septet was composed for the Parisian musical organization La Trompette in 1881. Septets are rare in chamber music, and one including the trumpet is a novelty, indeed. Its formal procedures, an amalgam of Baroque and late-romantic techniques with a healthy twist of Saint-Saëns, make for interesting listening. The Préambule sets the eclectic tone with its concerto-like piano flourishes that give way to an imitative fugato that seems to come out of nowhere early in the movement. The trumpet in this movement interjects arpeggios and repeated pitches, a nod to its military fanfare tradition. The Menuet, a textbook exemplar of the old dance form, begins in a declamatory style with a rhythmic motive stressing beat two. It’s in the Trio section of the movement that the trumpet sports its melodic stuff, often doubling with the strings to produce some of the work’s most unusual colors. The dark and serious Intermède continues to integrate the melodious trumpet part into the ensemble writing. The spirited Gavotte et Final has the character of ritornello form with its recurring block of music and some more wicked licks for the piano, made more difficult by the faster tempo at the movement’s end. Kudos to Berntsen for his beautifully nuanced playing, and to Ehlen for his formidable piano chops.
The sole offering after intermission was the Brahms Quintet. This was a work of his old age, inspired by the performances in Meiningen of clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld and composed in 1891 at Bad Ischl in Austria. Mühlfeld and the Joachin Quartet premiered the work in November 1891. The writing is an inspired masterpiece of consummate skill, and the players who performed it are master performers. The expressive range and control of their playing was exemplary. The opening Allegro in sonata form was characterized by sweeping lyricism and chordal moments of repose. The opening duet of thirds in the violins returns in this movement and elsewhere. The second movement Adagio encapsulates some of the work’s most expressive moments. Impassioned flourishes in the clarinet alternate with simpler melodic statements, and the emotional impact of the music is tremendous. The experimental short third movement — Andantino-Presto non assai-ma con sentiment — serves as a foil to the final Con moto, an expansive theme with five ingenious variations. Brahms works his magic in some of the most beautiful writing in the chamber literature, and, having nothing left to prove, ends the quintet quietly like a benediction. If there is music in heaven, surely this is what it would sound like.