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Many moments of sheer beauty

New York
Frick Collection
01/18/2018 -  & January 14, 2018 (Wilhelminaoord)
Johann Nepomuk Hummel: Clarinet quartet in E-flat major, S. 78
Franz Schubert: Octet in F major, D. 803

Camerata RCO: Hein Wiedijk (clarinet), Simon van Holen (bassoon), Fons Verspaandonk (horn), Marc Daniel van Biemen, Annebeth Webb (violin), Jeroen Woudstra (viola), Maartje-Maria den Herder (cello), Rob Dirksen (double bass)

(© Hans van der Woerd)

Very few venues in New York City can match the splendid acoustics of the music room at the Frick Collection. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s it was favored by the most illustrious most chamber groups, including the legendary Budapest String Quartet, who used it frequently. A few minutes spent there easily explains why. Nowadays the place regularly hosts chamber groups albeit not as famous as the ones so many New Yorkers might have heard a long time ago. On Sunday, January 18th, I was privileged to hear a group of musicians who, though members of the world-renowned Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, still find time to perform chamber music on a regular basis. It was obvious from the first notes of the Hummel Quartet for Clarinet and Strings that they are familiar with each other’s style and they seem very comfortable playing together. So even if they don’t have the universal renown of say, the Vienna Octet, as far as their command of instrumental playing is concerned they owe nothing to their more famous colleagues.

The program consisted of only two works, the first of which, Hummel’s Quartet in E flat, was a rarity. Composed in 1808, it follows the traditional four-movement form, with plenty of virtuoso stuff offered to each instrument. The second movement of the piece – whimsically titled “La seccatura” (“The Nuisance”), is in the form of a musical joke, with each instrument given a different time-signature. The clarinet part is in 2/4, the violin in 12/8, the viola in 3/4 and the cello in 6/8, an arrangement that taxes the players more than it does the listener, as time-signatures change in each part in the course of the movement. Like many other Hummel compositions, all superbly crafted and brimming with a beautiful melodies, in the Quartet we had a well-written, classically scaled work, where echoes of Beethoven and Mozart were always in the background. As in the following Schubert composition, the clarinet part was deftly handled by Hein Wiendjik; strings were presided over by the equally nimble and assured violinist Annebeth Webb.

It is well known that Schubert idolized Beethoven, dedicated some of his works to him, and ended up being a pall-bearer at Beethoven’s spectacular funeral procession. A face-to-face meeting most likely never took place, though the two composers lived in the same, not terribly large town where everyone knew everyone else. In his own reserved way, the awe-stricken Franz sought to get closer to the Master’s circle of acquaintances, among them Beethoven’s friend and patron, Ferdinand, Count Troyer, a skilled amateur clarinetist and Master of Music Activities at the Court of the Archduke Rudolph. We also know that Troyer commissioned from Schubert a piece similar to the then-popular Beethoven Septet in E flat (supposedly Beethoven couldn’t understand the popularity of this work, which in his mind was inferior to his other compositions). There are two little-known but interesting details regarding this commission: the first is that Troyer was trying to approach Schubert, whose address he didn’t know, and the letters he sent to the young composer were not received. This proves Schubert was a composer whose talent and abilities were already known to many if his Viennese contemporaries. Troyer specifically requested a piece modeled on the same Beethoven Septet that the group – headed by the famed Schuppanzigh with Troyer as the clarinetist – was tired of playing all the time. After Schubert had been located he quickly set to work on a similarly shaped and scored work, the Octet in F major. The only major difference between the two was the addition of a second violin in the Schubert to enhance the richness of the piece. The virtuoso part for first violin was conceived in the hope that the distinguished violinist Shuppanzigh, whose own quartet performed most of Beethoven works for string quartet, would look kindly on the Octet. An equally difficult clarinet part was meant to endear its performer to Schubert.

Some commentators claim Schubert wrote more idiomatically, more successfully, for clarinet than Beethoven himself. In the Octet’s Adagio, the clarinet sings the opening melody – we can only speculate how much Count Troyer must have enjoyed playing this delicious Schubertian tune – but the clarinet’s prominence doesn’t of course end there. As to the virtuoso writing for the two leading instruments, violin and clarinet, it is telling that the original first edition of the Octet contained only four of the original six movements, and that the virtuosic parts were somewhat facilitated.

Schubert’s Octet bears many similarities to the Beethoven Septet. First, its design retains the same six movements, one of them a set of variations. And like Beethoven, who took as a theme for the variations his own Tempo di Menuetto from Piano Sonata op. 49 N° 1, Schubert utilized his own folk-like melody, a vocal duet, from an already forgotten operetta, The Friends from Salamanca. Finally, each variation features a different instrument, similar to the variations movement from the Trout Quintet.

The Octet was composed in 1824 and probably finished in early spring of that year, as we can judge from the letter Schubert wrote to one of his friends. It is a large-scale composition that takes almost an hour to perform (more, if one takes all the repeats). Thus far it surpasses the overall dimensions of its model. With the exception of a dramatic introduction to the final Allegro – with the fierce tremolos of double bass – the work on the whole has a surprisingly sunny, positive, optimistic and cheerful character. The stormy, anguished, tragic moments in other Schubert works such as the last String Quartet in G, the String Quintet or the last three piano sonatas, were yet to come. As a matter of fact the cheerfulness of the Finale always makes me wonder if this is not one of Schubert’s happiest works. What is interesting and rather unusual in Schubert’s piece is the uneven, asymmetric shape of the opening phrase; that manner of elision will re-appear a few years later in one of the late piano sonatas.

From the point of view of instrumental playing the performance we heard at the Frick Collection was superb, perhaps the best I have ever heard live. What made it possible was the fact that, unlike a typical presentation of this complex score by a string quartet joined by a thrown-together group of wind players, here we witnessed musicians who knew each other and play together often. This makes a huge difference in matters of ensemble and intonation, both flawless in this group. So what we had was instrumental perfection, stylish playing and some interesting performing choices such as tempo differentiation between the outer parts in both the Scherzo (third movement) and Menuetto (fifth movement). There was also a palpable feeling of excitement, exhilaration and joyfulness.

Yet the Schubert is often a difficult beast to tame, for it is far easier to demonstrate instrumental excellence than to create a sense of relaxation, which occasionally seemed to be missing from the performance of Camerata RCO. I missed the amiable feeling and old-fashioned Viennese elegance so difficult to duplicate. I guess the tempi were driven a little too hard by the otherwise excellent first violinist Marc Daniel van Biemen. Sometimes, when the same dotted motif in the first movement was played by the violin and then taken by Maartje-Maria den Herder on the cello, her version was more relaxed. But there were many moments of sheer beauty to cherish, and the Andante in the form of variations provided an excellent opportunity to show each of the player’s virtuosity.

Roman Markowicz



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