The 35th season of the remarkable Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival is drawing into its last week with an astounding variety of concerts including a superb concert by William Preucil and friends, namely the Canterbury Quartet, who played Monday afternoon in the Albert Carlton-Cashiers Library Auditorium in Cashiers. Preucil is the concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra, former first violin of the now-disbanded Cleveland Quartet, and an ardent and well-known soloist and chamber musician.
Teaming up with HCCMF Music Director and pianist William Ransom, Preucil opened the afternoon with one of my favorite pieces, dating from my earliest childhood, the Sonata in G, Op. 78, by Johannes Brahms. I was lost in reverie and memories through much of the sonata, the first movement of which lends itself particularly well to such pursuits. The second movement is dominated by the tragic funeral march inspired by the death of Robert and Clara Schumann's youngest son, Felix, Brahms' godson, who had just died at 25 from tuberculosis. In his brief pre-performance talk, Ransom had drawn the link between two Lieder Brahms had written and the evocative third movement. Playing seated and somewhat removed from the piano (which nonetheless dominated the acoustics), Preucil's violin sounded somewhat muffled in the humid mountain air, but darkly warm and perfectly in tune – unlike the piano's low B-flats in the second movement! The third movement saw Preucil more animated as the music became less introverted in nature.
Illness kept two members of the Canterbury Quartet away from the Festival so the Terzetto in C by Antonín Dvořák, Op. 74, for two violins and viola was played in place of a Mendelssohn quartet, originally scheduled. William Preucil and his daughter Alexandra, both of the Canterbury Quartet, were joined by Vega Quartet violist Yinzi Kong, originally from Shanghai and a regular performer at HCCMF. Both she and Miss Preucil are physically active while they play and kept the audience intrigued – almost as if they cued each other like conductors, father Preucil joining in as well.
The second movement, with its mysterious mid-section passing tremolo from player to player, was charming, but I was especially captivated in the third movement by the rhythmic complexity and stunning use of soft playing sul ponticello ("on the bridge," which gives an eerie metallic sound to the tone) and by the clever and very effective rapid "hooked" bowings near the end of the trio. The last movement starts slowly, a sort of recitative. There follows a dotted variation which could have been inspired by Beethoven's last quartet (Große Fuge), a tremolo reprise of the opening recitative, and then a brisk and jagged ending. This was a first hearing for me and perhaps for many, but we were all captivated and convinced by the excellent performance of the charming Terzetto as we stepped out into the mountain air for a brief intermission.
Often we leave a concert with enthusiasm; occasionally we are even moved to tears. But rarely does one leave with the elation of having participated in a unique event that enveloped us all, audience and musicians, bound together by a shared performance and by the ineffable inevitability of that experience. This was one of those times, and the performance that evoked in the audience this sense of ultimate satisfaction was the Second String Quintet in G, Op. 111, by Brahms, originally thought by the composer to be his last work. No recording I have ever heard lives up to this gripping in-the-moment performance with its fierce glances, pursed lips, and foot-stomping entrances – all adding to the passion of the moment!
Joining the trio for this occasion was the well-known violist (and musical commentator and raconteur) Miles Hoffman and cellist Andrew Lee. The exuberant first movement, Allegro non troppo, ma con brio, is so full of "brio" that the musicians almost flew off their chairs, repeatedly. Starting after harmonic agitation as exciting as the opening of the "Ride of the Valkyries," the guest cellist, Mr. Yee, from the Attacca Quartet, virtually erupted with a heroic entrance of Straussian grandeur – and the audience was enthralled! What a joyous movement! If Beethoven has asked, "Müss es sein?" in his penultimate quartet, Brahms affirms joyously in this quintet, "Ja! Es müss sein!"
The second movement is harmonically complex, tender in its ambiguity yet endearing in the numerous passionate duets in thirds (a left-over from a recent vacation in Italy?), and quirky about letting the cello have the last word (note) before anyone else. The third movement is traditionally a scherzo, a fast movement, but here Brahms has opted for a gentler (and more contrapuntal) version, marked Un poco Allegretto – definitely not a fast tempo, but more like the Intermezzo Brahms practically invented. Nonetheless the form of the scherzo holds true, with the sweeter Trio enfolded between sections of Scherzo.
Perhaps no musical or symphonic form has undergone more change in the last two centuries than the "Finale," from the light-hearted rondo of the classical composers, through the upheaval created by Beethoven's "Choral Symphony" to Brahms' chaconne in the Fourth Symphony – thus paving the way for Bruckner, Mahler, and Shostakovich. The individuality of the composer became more important while society was changing from a clerical and aristocratic order to democratization and ultimately to the anarchical upheavals of the last century; composers' musical individualities also grew, out-stripping and discarding forms no longer sufficient for "modern" expression.
And so with trepidation born of unfamiliarity, I awaited the last movement, knowing it was the fertile field of invention. Indeed, Brahms maintains an ambiguity of tonality as well as tempo – Vivace ma non troppo presto (Lively, but not too hasty). However the infectious Hungarian Gypsy style came through on more than one occasion with its rhythmic syncopations and modal ambivalence, reminding us that young Johannes had once toured with just such musicians.
Here, as through the entire work, the body language was a vital and integral part of the music-making. I was particularly captivated by the expressiveness of Mr. Yee, who held his cello as though it were a plaything – I fully expected him to drop his bow because of the looseness of his grip yet he absolutely dominated his instrument and through his communication with the other artists provided the solid base and bass needed for the others to build upon. I will certainly search out the Attacca Quartet in my musical meanderings!
The Festival has concerts on Friday and Saturday with the season culminating on Sunday with a chamber orchestra concert presenting concerti by Mozart and Beethoven in the Highlands Performing Arts Center.
For details on all remaining events, see our calendar.