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New York
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center
05/13/2016 -  
Bernard Herrmann: Psycho: A Narrative for String Ensemble
André Caplet: Conte fantastique
Maurice Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit
Franz Schubert: Erlkönig, D. 328 – Quartet in D minor for Strings, D. 810, “Der Tod und das Mädchen”

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center: Yunpeng Wang (baritone), Inon Barnatan (piano), Bridget Kibbey (harp), Kristin Lee, Sean Lee (violin), Yura Lee (violin, viola), Efe Baltacigil (cello), Timothy Cobb (double bass), The Escher Quartet: Adam Barnett-Hart, Aaron Boyd (violins), Pierre Lapointe (viola), Brook Speltz (cello)

I. Barnatan (© Marco Borggreve)

“I’ll lick the stamps.”
Janet Leigh to John Gavin in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center took advantage of Friday the 13th by offering us some rather dark and thrilling treats.

Psycho is Alfred Hitchcock’s problem play. The film suffers from Gone With The Wind disease, that is the first reel is truly great – some might even make a case for its supremacy over all other celluloid efforts – but the second and third reels, although they have their moments, are pedestrian at best. What remains constant throughout is the incredible music of Bernard Herrmann, a “serious” composer (cf. his cantata Moby Dick), working in the lucrative Hollywood arena and contributing under its surface his deep personality portraits of characters from Charles Foster Kane to Travis Bickle. His string orchestra arrangement of the music from Psycho opened an extremely inventive and entertaining evening.

An ensemble of nine string instruments took us all on the harrowing journey of Norman Bates and Marion Crane, although there was some confusion as to the reaction of the crowd. Years ago, Dawn Upshaw performed Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall. When the supertitle:

“woke, slept, woke, slept, miserable life”

was projected, many in the crowd laughed. I remember wondering what sort of people would do that and was reminded of them this evening as there were pockets of laughter when the shower curtain was pushed aside and Marion was stabbed to death to the accompaniment of some of the most horrifying sounds in all of music. Otherwise the nonet played well, although perhaps not expressively enough. They could have let their hair down just a tad more.

André Caplet was inspired to write Conte fantastique by Poe’s The Mask of the Red Death: A Fantasy (Poe’s original title did not use the word “Masque”). Scored for harp and string quartet, the piece retells the story by employing a new harmonic universe with fascinating results. The harp especially is the messenger from the beyond and when Bridget Kibbey knocked on the wooden part of her instrument – the mask arriving at the masque – the effect was suitably shocking. Thus far, an entertaining and unusual evening.

Speaking of facing one’s fears, Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit is perhaps the most difficult piece to play in the entire piano repertoire. Its inclusion on this program is due to the Le Gibet (the Gallows) movement, ironically the easiest of the three sections as far as left to right hand coordination, although its macabre poetry takes quite a bit of skill to pull off. Here the bill of fare became far more interesting as pianist Inon Barnatan brought this event to the next level with a remarkable performance. Ravel based his work on a set of tales by Aloysius Bertrand, who, in turn, based his stories on the etchings of Jacques Callot, yes, the same master who inspired the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, itself a Viennese version of Grand Guignol. Barnatan was strident and delicate by turns and navigated the three dark movements with exceptional skill and expressiveness. Scarbo is the real finger-breaker and he traversed it with skill and poetry.

Ravel was not a great pianist and, like Schubert before him, took some satisfaction in composing music for the keyboard that only the greatest practitioners could master.

Did someone mention Schubert? Erlkönig (the Elf King) should bring to mind the great performance of Lawrence Tibbett, but always makes me think of Morey Amsterdam, who utilized the song’s unforgettable beginning to herald any humorously negative situation. Baritone Yunpeng Wang scores a B plus for effort but simply does not yet possess the gravitas of voice needed for this shocking tour-de-force.

The Escher Quartet (Adam Barnett-Hart and Aaron Boyd, violins, Pierre Lapointe, viola, Brook Speltz, cello) concluded the program with a fine rendition of the “Death and the Maiden” Quartet that matched excellent inter-instrument communication with skillful phrasing, belying their obvious youth. Look for great things from this group going forward.

Oddly, the good folks at the society did not include any composition by that most ardent of triskaidekaphobes Arnold Schoenberg, who even went so far as to purposefully misspell the character of Aaron in his opera Moses und Aron so that there would not be thirteen letters in its title. Schoenberg was born in the suburbs of Vienna on September the 13th in 1874 and was teased repeatedly throughout his life for his ardent belief that he would also pass away on the 13th right up until his death in Los Angeles on July 13, 1951.

Fred Kirshnit



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