Chamber Music Review Print



A Masterpiece But Still a Puzzle

February 20, 2005 - Chapel Hill, NC:


Certain works simply refuse to mellow with age, although their composers may. Harpsichordist Elaine Funaro, cellist Brent Wissick, flutist Brooks de Wetter Smith and oboist Michael Schultz teamed up in Hill Hall for a concert whose centerpiece was one of the most baffling of 20th century compositions, by one of its most baffling composers: Elliott Carter’s Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord, commissioned in 1952 by harpsichordist Sylvia Marlowe for the Harpsichord Quartet of New York. In the intervening decades, Carter – now 97 – has pulled back from the brink, but his string quartets and the Sonata stand as monuments of a more cerebral age.

The musicians bracketed Carter with some easier fare. They opened with Georg Phillip Telemann’s Sonata in f minor for Flute and Continuo, one of that composer’s most popular works. Smith, accompanied by Funaro and Wissick, gave it a scintillating reading with a lovely tone and full of tricky ornamentation, which made us wish he would perform in public more frequently.

Udo Kasemets (b.1919) is an Estonian composer, teacher, reviewer and festival organizer who has lived in Canada since 1951. While he considers John Cage, Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller as his major influences, he wrote his Ecclesiastical Suite for Cello and Harpsichord in 1956, before he fell under their spell. The first movement, Kyrie, opens with a lovely plainchant melody, but stops shortly thereafter, without doing much with it. The second movement Chorale: "Mit Fried und Freud" (With peace and joy) evolves a little further but again leaves you wishing for more. Only in the last movement, Spiritual: "He never Said a Mumblin’ Word," is there some interesting development of the melody. Wissick commented from the stage that he had obtained the music many years ago and finally found the opportunity to play it, which he did very well. We only wish he had used the intervening years to urge the composer to expand the work, especially the first two movements.

Tom Robin Harris is Professor of Music at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL. In addition to composing, he is a highly accomplished organist and has been invited to compete in several European organ competitions. As composer, he is most influenced by John Adams, Prokofiev and Stravinsky. His 1991 work Two Movements for Harpsichord owe much to Adams – no small amount to J. S. Bach – and Funaro performed them with élan and a spirit of fun.

Then came the piéce de resistance, Carter’s Sonata. To give an idea of its complexity and difficulty: it took 40 rehearsals to prepare the premiere performance in 1953. According to Carter, he wrote the work with “…the vast and wonderful array of tone-colors available on the modern harpsichord…the three other instruments were used for the most part as a frame for the harpsichord.” In the performance, Funaro used a replica of a baroque instrument, while the other three were decidedly modern. Consequently, much of the time the sound of the harpsichord was drowned out. Not having heard the work since the late 1950s, it is hard to judge the performance of such a complex work on the basis of a single hearing, except to say the it was technically well performed.

To end the evening on a lighter note, the four performers played Robert Greenlee’s "Rondeau bleu," a charming Frenchified blues, with all the rhythmic sharp corners rounded off. Wissick remarked from the stage that it was the performers’ reward for all the hard work on the Carter. It was a mellow way to end the evening.