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Visitors From The North

New York
Québec Office in New York
10/02/2013 -  
Friederich August Kummer: Duet for Two Cellos No. 1, Opus 22
Reinhold Glière: Eight Pieces for Violin and Cello, Opus 39
Anton Arenski: String Quartet No. 2, Opus 35

Giora Schmidt (Violin), Barry Shiffman (Viola), Denis Brott, Benoît Loiselle (Cellos)

D.Brott and ensemble (© Coco T. Dog)

Wednesday’s scheduled “Grand Opening Night of Carnegie Hall,” for the tiaraéd/tuexedoed elite, was not only not “grand”, it became a lumpenproletariat non-event, due to union problems.

Not to worry, though. Five blocks away, another audience heard an entirely different kind of music, this from four musicians of the acclaimed Festival Musique de Chambre Montréal. Founded cellist Denis Brott, the Festival is going into its second decade. And even in Montréal, with its superb orchestra, spectacular concert hall, venues including some splendid old Catholic Churches, this Festival stands out.

A few years ago I attended the Festival, though with some misgivings. After all, General George Washington had been defeated in a battle here some 250 years ago, and we true patriots don’t readily forget these humiliations. Nor were my suspicions allayed with my first (and, Deo gratias, last) dish of an icky measure of cheese curds, fried potatoes and gravy called poutine, supposedly the trademark of the city. (Blessings, George, for losing Montréal.)

That was quickly allayed with unbeatable lobster bisque, halibut, and up in Quebec, oysters better than any in New York.

More essential is that Montréal’s musical enthusiasms pervades the city. This is a cerebral town, so their Canadian pop icon isn’t Paul Anka, it’s Leonard Cohen, their jazz icon is Canadian-born Oscar Peterson. And when their orchestra boasts luminaries like Kent Nagano and Charles Dutoit as their conductors, this is no shabby town at all.

Even more interesting were the pieces which the four instrumentalists chose last night. A visiting ensemble boosting their home town Festival, would conventionally select music familiar enough to make their audience to feel comfortable. But this ad hoc quartet dug up a few highly unusual composers with very unusual works.

One might suppose that Denis Brott, the Founder and Artistic Director of the Montréal Festival, and one of the stalwarts of the entire Canadian musical scene, could have chosen these three pieces to show off for himself, since they all featured the cello in some unusual incarnations. But even if that were true, the pair of works I heard, were stunning in their originality.

Due to a scheduling mishap, I had missed a three movement duet for two cellos by one Friedrich August Kummer, a German cellist and composer who lived from the time of Beethoven (1797) to the birth of Respighi (1879).

But the second work was shatteringly good. I didn’t get a program until the end of the concert, so had little idea who had written eight bagatelles, masterfully played by Mr. Brott and Giora Schmidt. They were lovely: pastoral, danceable, obviously Slavic, perfectly accommodating for both instruments.

It had to have been Antonín Dvorák, I felt, one of those delightful works he wrote in his spare time. No, the composer turned out to be Reinhold Glière, best known for his Russian Sailor’s Dance and the Third Symphony “Ilya Muromets”. In his own long life, though, Glière wrote hundreds of works still to be discovered outside Russia, and this is a sweet addition. I heard them again on YouTube (not with this duo, unfortunately) and regret not hearing them before.

The last work was a string quartet–but not your usual string quartet. Anton Arenski’s Second String Quartet is written for one violin, one viola, and two cellos. The reason becomes obvious from the first measures. For the sounds are dark, stark, shadowy, even funereal. He had written it for the death of his friend Tchaikovsky, but it is never totally–or philosophically–tragic the way Beethoven or Mahler would write tragedy.

Instead, the String Quartet sounded familiar. A Russian nursery tune, a Russian Orthodox psalm chant, the famous theme used by Beethoven, all gave that Slavic color to this singular work.

If Arenski was totally Russian in the music, he was also Russian in personality, dying after a life of alcoholism and gambling. Mussorgsky and Dostoyevsky would have been proud of him, though his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov huffed that Arenski’s dissolute ways would make him forgotten.

He wasn’t forgotten last night. The four artists last night, with names far from the lily-white reputation of Canada, offered gems of other sounds, other worlds.

Harry Rolnick



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