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Romantic Refinement

August 5, 2008

Last week was “The Romantic Generation” week at [email protected], and by the Romantic generation they mean Middle European Romantics. The music on the main concert program, which I heard on Monday at St. Mark’s Church in Palo Alto, was by Johannes Brahms and the two greatest of his close associates, Robert Schumann and Antonín Dvořák, with a slight ringer in the form of a small contribution from Hugo Wolf.
The heart of the program was the work that may have been closest to the heart of Brahms. When we think of Brahms' orchestral music, it’s the beautiful French horn passages that most come to mind. So why, among so much great chamber music, did he write only one work with a horn in it?

Before beginning the Trio in E-flat, Op. 40, for horn, violin, and piano, William VerMeulen, hornist in the performance, explained why. The horn is just too strong and uncontrolled an instrument to fit well in the genteel world of chamber music for strings and piano, especially if it’s a modern valved horn like VerMeulen played. But he did his utmost to keep the horn well-dressed for the context, turning entirely away from the audience to play, and keeping his volume as soft as was consistent with good tone. At times he succeeded almost too well, producing what sounded like a distant horn obbligato in a sonata for violin and piano. But he also achieved at times something a listener might have thought impossible: a clean blending of the disparate sounds of horn and violin.

Violinist Jorja Fleezanis was VerMeulen’s steady partner. One of the most experienced players appearing at the festival, Fleezanis is remembered by some for her long stint in the San Francisco Symphony, before she left to become concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra some 20 years ago. Her playing has a firm, deep, mellow sound, perhaps as much like a horn as a violin can get.

Brahms' scoring puts the piano in a supporting role, but pianist Derek Han should not be overlooked. Though he produced notes with crisp separateness, not at all in the smudgy fashion that Brahms’s piano writing favors, the smooth flow gave his music-making the most elegiac Brahmsian sound of the three. A Scherzo and a hunting finale rather belie VerMeulen’s premise that the Trio is a sad memorial to the composer’s mother, but all four movements, whether lively or slow, were well-performed.
Clarinetist’s Consummate Skill
Han also played in Schumann’s Phantasiestücke, Op. 73, for clarinet and piano. This tiny suite evolves from the tender Eusebius to the exuberant Florestan sides of Schumann’s personality. I could have wished it longer, if only to hear more of Anthony McGill’s superb clarinet playing. McGill’s expressiveness and his ability to slowly open up phrases from initial silence make him always worth hearing. Every note he plays counts, and I regret there weren’t more of them.

A more substantial Schumann piece followed, his most popular work of chamber music, the Quintet for Piano and Strings in E-flat, Op. 44. Some performances of the Quintet are lyrical, some stealthy, some exuberant. This one was driven, and accordingly its most brilliant movement was the Scherzo. What it was driven by was the piano-playing of festival codirector Wu Han, no relation to Derek, and not very like him as a pianist either. She gave energy and shape to the performance, with considerable assistance from the string players, particularly the growly viola of Paul Neubauer in the first two movements. Andrés Díaz played a smooth cello, and Erin Keefe and Arnaud Sussmann were the violinists. Sussmann was playing a new violin in its first-ever public performance, and in his hands its sound already seemed cool and mature.

Neubauer, Sussmann, and Keefe also appeared earlier to play Dvořák’s Terzetto in C, Op. 74. As a string trio without a cello it has a curiously weightless sound, but Neubauer provided what foundation the piece has, and gave some eerie harmonics. All three players did well in providing variety of movement and tension throughout the work.

The remaining item on the program was Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade for string quartet. This brief, normally rather light and sardonic piece was played by the Escher Quartet in a bizarrely crabbed, inward-looking manner. It sounded as if it had been written by Béla Bartók. Only near the end did the bright Italian sun peek through, ever so slightly.

There was no Prelude performance by the festival’s International Program artists on Monday, but I did attend one on Tuesday at the Menlo School’s Martin Family Hall, before the Tuesday repeat of this concert. Grace Park, violin, and Dmitri Atapine, cello, had largely unison parts in Brahms' Piano Trio in C, Op. 87, while Liza Stepanova, piano, played gently in the background. The Hausmann Quartet in Schumann’s String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 41, No. 1, was rougher than is normally characteristic of the Prelude concerts, but it played with passion and commitment.

David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.