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Brevard Music Festival is now into its third week, and if one is counting, this was its sixth of twelve programs of evening chamber music. Díaz Trio members Andrés Cárdenes, violinist, Roberto Díaz, violist, and Andrés Díaz, cellist, were joined at Brevard College's Porter Center by Steven Cohen, clarinet, Bruce Murray, piano, a 9-member cello ensemble, Scott Rawls, viola, and Amy Schwartz Moretti, violin, in a program of both mainstream and rarely-heard works.
First up were four selections from Max Bruch's Acht Stücke for Clarinet, Viola and Piano, Op. 83 (1910). Known in his day as a conductor, composer, and educator, Bruch (1838-1920) resisted the successive tidal waves of change championed by Liszt, Wagner, Debussy, and the early atonalists, the style of his works remaining so conservative that one wonders if he, like Brahms, felt as though he'd been born "30 years too late." This set was written for his clarinetist son, Max Felix Bruch; the work also exists as a piano trio, with the clarinet and viola parts arranged for violin and cello.
Performers often select movements in lieu of playing the entire piece at one sitting, thereby resulting in the following sequence for this performance: No. 6 Nachtgesang/Nocturne in G minor, No. 3 Andante con moto in C-sharp minor, No. 5 Rumänische Melodie-Andante in F minor, and No. 4 Allegro Agitato in D minor. No. 6 is the longest of the set, a lovely and lyrical (though not introverted) work in which the melodic expositions are shared by viola and clarinet, and the piano plays a supporting role. Díaz is one of the best violists I've ever heard — an extremely powerful player with exquisite control over every technical aspect of his instrument. I felt that he overpowered Cohen in No. 3, but that in Nos. 5 and 4 their balance was restored. Especially noteworthy was their ensemble in Nos. 3 and 5, with phrase beginnings and endings and several unison passages perfectly matched. No. 5 was unique among the selections in that the piano opened the movement with sharply strummed chords, an accompaniment pattern borrowed directly from folk traditions so beloved by the composer.
John Tavener's Wake Up... and Die was the evening's novelty, a work commissioned by Sony Classical recordings and composed in 1996 for solo cello (Yo-Yo Ma) and cello ensemble. English-born Tavener (b. 1944), though raised a Presbyterian, converted to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977. His catalog of works reflects his deep and abiding interest in spirituality. Of this work, Tavener said: "... The opening solo melody for the cello…is in fact a palindrome because waking and dying are like two sides of a piece of paper. If you wake up spiritually, then you will die to all that is not of God. In the middle section, which is also a palindrome, the orchestral cellos join in the paradoxical meditation providing a platform, as it were, while the cello line takes on a much more melismatic and decorative character. In fact, the whole work is a series of intellectual contradictions, realized by the simplest of musical metaphysics. Dying life, life dying, waking up, in order to die... the solo cello always represents the individual mind dying, and the individual mind waking up. Then, of a sudden, just before the end, the solo chant begins again, only to be cut off by a distant sentimental memory... the memory of 'the blues,' reminding us of ordinary human emotion, and of our fallen state. The very end suggests a waking up into a kind of peace (not soul slumber, since after death the soul becomes more intensely alive); but we know nothing of that, so the music fades beyond our ears."
For this extraordinary piece, soloist Andrés Díaz, elevated on a podium, was surrounded by nine cellists, Carlton McCreery serving as principal of the group. The first of three sections was devoted solely to solo cello, playing high on the fingerboard in so ethereal a tone one could imagine the sound coming from afar, as from a distant room. Chant-like in its simplicity, the dynamics progressively intensified. By the second section, the soloist had "moved into the room," its sound overtly rhapsodic and intense with rippling ascending figurations, many of them, always landing on the same, insistent high pitch. The ensemble was omni-present here, playing sustained harmonies, its principal cellist occasionally playing with the soloist in homorhythms. As this palindrome unfolded, the melodic figurations were reversed, plummeting to earth. The effect of the piece on this audience was varied — puzzling; like prayer, mesmerizing; certainly open to interpretation — and I think it would have been more accessible had the program notes been more complete in explicating the work's structure as it underscored the composer's programmatic ideology.
After intermission was the Brahms String Quintet No. 1 in F for Two Violins, Two Violas, and Cello, Op 88, which had its first performance in the small resort town of Bad Ischl before its public premiere in Frankfurt on December 29, 1882. Brahms could not seem to get out of his sunny, holiday mood, both within the sounds of the music and the written score, the inscription "[written] in the spring of 1882" placed at the end of each movement. But for all the sunshine, the Quintet is still serious, densely contrapuntal Brahms. The first movement in sonata form features two charming contrasting themes, both a foil to the furioso of the development section. The real surprise is in the lengthy second movement (Grave ed appassionato - Allegretto vivace - Tempo I – Presto - Tempo I), which is like lyrical second and scherzando third movements rolled into one. During the Presto, Cárdenes broke a string and the performance was halted while he walked off stage to replace it. After some funny remarks about the necessity of having spare strings, the ensemble, unruffled, picked up where they left off. The finale Allegro energico – Presto began with two chords, as if to get our attention, before the onset of a fugue that caught up all the players in turn, played with such intensity it was like listening to a conversation, but one conducted at a shout. One wonders many things after such a compelling performance — how they summon time and again this kind of energy and concentration, especially with so little rehearsal time.