Sunday afternoon’s Greensboro Symphony chamber concert in UNCG School of Music, Theatre and Dance’s splendid Recital Hall featured music by Richard Strauss (1864-1949) and Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904). Dmitri Sitkovetsky, Music Director of the Greensboro Symphony, provided background material on both works.
Maestro Sitkovetsky mused before the large audience about the words “Metamorphosis” and “Transformation,” the two themes of this week’s GSO concerts. He used Strauss’ life as an example, from the composer’s success as a young man in the orchestral field and in opera, to the end of his life after he had lived through the Nazi era in Germany. And he talked about Shostakovich and politics as another example. He concluded his remarks with a comment about the conflict between art and politics: “art always wins.”
Strauss’ Metamorphosen was written in 1945 for 23 strings (10 violins, 5 violas, 5 cellos and 3 double basses), but in Sunday’s performance, a version for seven strings was presented. (Sitkovetsky called it a “diluted” version, where one could hear the individual lines more clearly. Maybe “transparent” would be more appropriate.) Rudolf Leopold made this arrangement in the 1990s from newly discovered composer sketches of the work written as a string septet.
The composer wrote the piece during the final months of WWII. Strauss was in his 80s and his beloved Germany lay in ruins. Perhaps that helps explain the reference to the Funeral March movement from Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony (“Eroica”).
This is a dramatic, slowly unfolding work and is relentless in its intensity. The rhythms of the Beethoven theme were often present, and a literal quote appears in the last five minutes of the 30-minute work. The other obvious influence is Wagner: wasn’t that a motive from Parsifal that appeared at every corner?
The performance was stunning — seething tension was the primary character of the work, and the seven musicians didn’t back off from the psychologically demanding work. Ensemble and intonation were great, and the seven worked as a unit to attain the slippery harmonic goals. Earlier, Sitkovetsky had compared the work to Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night,” and one could easily draw stylistic parallels.
The four-movement Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat, op. 87, was composed in 1887 by Dvořák and premiered in Prague later that year. It was a perfect foil to the Strauss. The performers were Inara Zandmane (piano), Fabian Lopez (violin), Simon Ertz (viola), and Alex Ezerman (cello).
The opening Allegro con fuoco (fast with fire) begins with an introduction that pits the strings against the piano, giving a concerto-like feel. But later the instrumentation is more interwoven. Dvořák was certainly democratic in his assigning melodic material to the instruments. For example, the lyric second tune is first presented by the viola, lovingly played by Ertz.
The slow second movement is chock full of wonderful phrases, beginning with the cello, tenderly and exquisitely played by Ezerman. Later passionate outbursts break the melancholic mood, and Lopez’s soaring violin playing helped capture the emotion.
The third movement juxtaposes lilting melodies in the strings (sounding very Viennese) with exotic scalar material from the piano. The middle section is more galloping. The finale presents several themes, many of which reveal some Czech folk influence.
This was a sparking performance. Zandmane’s scintillating playing added lots of effervescence to the proceedings, while her sensitive accompaniment for the strings provided a solid foundation. Each musician’s commitment to the work resulted in an exciting and robust performance.
Everyone left in good spirits after a wonderful afternoon of chamber music.