The offerings at the Swannanoa Chamber Music Festival seldom disappoint in their variety and performance excellence, and this concert was no exception. Heard in Kittredge Theatre at Warren Wilson College were Enso String quartet members Maureen Nelson, violin, John Marcus, and Richard Belcher, cello, with Inessa Zaretsky, piano, George Pope, flute, Cynthia Watson, oboe, David Bell, clarinet, Lynn Hileman, bassoon, and William Hoyt, horn, who also is the Festival's Musical Director. The program was an intriguing grab bag of chamber music pieces, each stylistically unique, culminating after intermission with the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25.
Beginning the program was the Quartet in F, Op. 8, No. 3, for violin, clarinet, horn, and cello by Carl Stamitz (1745-1801), son of the famous Johann Stamitz of Mannheim Orchestra fame. The unusual scoring of the work recalled an era in which Hausmusik was composed for the enjoyment of those who were at hand to perform it. Charming in its simplicity and classical balance, the three movements — Allegro, Andante, Presto — were played with effortless and elegant grace.
Following this was Alberto Ginastera's Duo, Op. 13, for flute and oboe. This relatively early work of 1945 began with Sonata which alternated imitative cat-and-mouse phrases with homophonic sections. The second movement Pastorale featured more extensive solo passages for each instrument which underscored its contemplative pathos. The final Fuga was a fierce nowhere-to-breathe motor juggernaut that could have benefited from a greater variety of articulations and dynamic range.
Just before intermission were four movements of Maurice Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, originally a six-movement keyboard suite arranged for wind quintet by Mason Jones,former principal horn of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Composed in neo-classical homage to François Couperin, one of the greatest of the French clavecinists, and to that style of Baroque composition generally, the work also paid tribute to various friends of Ravel who perished in WWI. The opening Prelude was a stunning movement of shimmering oscillating figures which rippled continuously through the ensemble, followed by a Fugue, the theme of which featured a sigh motive that lent its own plaintive quality to the compositional mix. The oboe carried most of the melodic leads for the ensuing Menuet, the most overtly classical movement of the suite. The Rigaudon was the most beautifully styled movement with captivating momentum and exquisite ensemble balance.
With the Brahms piano quartet we visited another country entirely. One wonders what the impact of such a piece with its deep pathos and explosive fire must have had on its first performers (Clara Schumann at the piano) and listeners in Berlin where it premiered in 1861, as it continues to utterly transport contemporary audiences. The first sonata form Allegro was impressive for its tone of high seriousness, its expansive emotional scope, and dramatically thick scoring. The development of ideas is extensive, as though Brahms could not stop thinking of things to say. The piano, positioned a little upstage, never overwhelmed the three strings throughout the work. The second movement Intermezzo, a quasi Scherzo, serves as a delightful bridge to the third movement Andante con moto, another weighty exposition of heavy thoughts in martially inflected dotted rhythms. The final Rondo all zingarese-Presto is the ethnic icing on the cake, an unimpeded, blistering stampede of technical zingers that worked the room into a frenzy, just as Brahms intended. Whoever said the old man was a stuffed shirt certainly hadn't heard this. The technical assurance and musical sophistication of each player were so gratifying to hear. Bravo tutti!