Music@Menlo Festival Wraps With a Tour of Viennese Salon Music

David Bratman on August 7, 2018
Menlo founder Wu Han (treble) and Gloria Chien (bass) play piano four hands | Credit: Geoff Sheil/Music@Menlo

Music@Menlo concluded its summer festival survey of Europe’s “Creative Capitals” with the most renowned musical capital of them all: Vienna. A performance of this program at the Menlo-Atherton Center for Performing Arts concluded the season on Saturday.

Musically, Vienna has a split personality. It’s home to the craggiest and most monumental of large-scale masterpieces, and also to the lightest of gemütlich salon music. Most of its greatest composers have written both. Saturday’s concert was something of a bridge between the styles.

To the extent that this was a salon concert, it would be hard to date the salon. The program included music written over more than a 100-year span, by four composers of entirely separate generations and distinct musical periods.

Mozart was the only composer whose offering was purely for the salon. It was an Andante and Variations in G for piano four hands, K. 501. Wu Han at treble and Gloria Chien at bass gave a clean and plain rendition of this characteristically Mozartian example of profound grace in simple beauty.

Schubert’s “Lebensstürme” was written in defiance of the salon style | Credit: Geoff Sheil/Music@Menlo

Schubert was also represented by a piano four hands work, but his Allegro in A Minor, D. 947, “Lebensstürme,” was written as a deliberate counter to the salon style. Though not as epic in size or sound as the “Wanderer” Fantasy or the “Death and the Maiden” Quartet, it aspires in that direction. Wu Han, this time on bass, and Gilbert Kalish on treble found their arms getting in each other’s way as they leaned on Schubert’s heavy chords and expounding passages. When the Allegro went quiet, it had none of the geniality of other late Schubert work. Instead, it sounded stealthy and mysterious.

Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34, is one of his heavy and declamatory works, even slightly deprecated by Brahms listeners who prefer the composer in a more melancholy mood. This performance, however, went as far as possible in turning the quintet into a work appropriate for the genteel salon. Introductions proceeded slowly and with caution, taking long pauses before embarking on follow-up. While there were moments of fierceness, the mood was largely quiet and tentative.

The players defied thick Brahmsian instrumentation with an open and airy style. Each of the four strings seemed detached from the others. Kristin Lee offered a strong but fairly light first violin and Nicholas Canellakis a dark and lonely cello, while second violinist Bella Hristova gave a more resonant sound than Lee, and violist Richard O’Neill went in the opposite direction with a vehemently dry and woody tone.

Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34 is a “heavy and declamatory” work | Credit: Geoff Sheil/Music@Menlo

Between them, they opened up an unusual amount of space to hear Kalish’s piano work, more than was perhaps ideal. Much of Brahms’s piano writing here is designed to offer jangly support underneath the strings. To hear it stand out this way is something like glimpsing behind the scenes in a magic trick.

The evening’s final offering was Arnold Schoenberg’s inevitable chamber music masterpiece, Verklärte Nacht, in its original version for string sextet. Three of the string players from the Brahms — Lee, O’Neill, and Canellakis — were joined by Arnaud Sussmann on first violin, Matthew Lipman on second viola, and David Requiro on first cello. None of the returning players changed their style — the dryness of O’Neill’s viola was particularly evident — but the ensemble came together with greater firmness than in the Brahms. The emotional range of the music, from buzzing fierceness in tremolo passages and spookiness under mutes to poignant sweetness in sections that seemed a nod to the spirit of the salon, was profound. A lightweight, glassy sound in the accompaniment as Sussmann’s violin speaks for the male character in Richard Dehmel’s poem was particularly notable. Here was emotive expressiveness that entirely broke the boundaries of salon convention.