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Little Big Men (and Women)

New York
Alice Tully Hall
12/07/2003 -  
Georg Philipp Telemann: Quartet # 4 for Flute, Violin, Cello and Harpsichord
Arnold Schoenberg: Transfigured Night
Franz Schubert: Piano Trio # 2

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

It was none other than Gustav Mahler himself who approached Arnold Schoenberg about constructing an arrangement of the string sextet Verklaerte Nacht for full string orchestra. Mahler, that inveterate tinker of scores, thought that the piece would be more powerful on a bigger stage. Schoenberg did not need much convincing; the composer of the Wagnerian Gurrelieder had had to order especially long music paper to accommodate all of the instrumental lines for the conductor’s opening night score. In an era of massive ensembles (contemporaneously, Richard Strauss was attempting to solve the problem of individual vocal lines being heard over an 110 piece orchestra for Elektra) Mahler, who, other than a disavowed early piano quartet, never wrote any chamber music, was convinced of the communicative magic of ever larger forces (although his intimate productions of Mozart with himself at the Staatsoper harpsichord were also highly praised). Of course, there is an inevitable loss of intimacy when expanding the parts (see Mahler’s own transcription of the Beethoven Quartet, Op. 95) and, since intimacy is indeed the subject of the source material for the sextet, an inflation of resources can lead to a dangerous distortion in presentation.

This issue of size was probably on my mind because immediately prior to attending yesterday’s concert of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, my companion and I stopped off at Rockefeller Center to listen to 179 members of the tuba family performing outside at the skating rink. Management had promised 300 of these leviathans (most were sousaphones), but severe weather conditions probably kept the population down. What was somewhat surprising was how small a sound emanated from such a large ensemble, even though they were miked and amplified. Once snugly inside Alice Tully, the sheer volume produced by just a few musicians seemed much more robust. This version of the transfigured sextet was a noble effort, but suffered from too zealous an adherence to a high moral principle. The more senior musicians of the society allowed their young friends (officially classified as “Chamber Music Two”) to play the first parts and the result was a rather prosaic tone for such a poetic work. There are two distinct interpretations of this piece and this day the narrative held firm sway. Without doubt, the music tells a very detailed story, and a reading of it stressing the programmatic side is certainly legitimate; what was missing, however, was the emotional intensity, so palpable recently in the fine rendition of this same piece at the new Jewish Heritage Museum performance space by Concertante. This current exploration was Romantic, but not passionate.

The surrounding pieces fared much better. The Telemann received a disciplined run through, the impression on this listener that the musicianship exhibited this afternoon was far superior to that of the original level of composition. The only player who appeared in each of the three pieces, violinist Jennifer Frautschi (she had played second fiddle in the Schoenberg), led a confident and interesting traversal of the mighty Schubert E Flat. Especially notable were the pace and gait of the scherzo, a movement that must have been a particular favorite of both Bruckner and Mahler. Pianist Anna Polonsky was an excellent shaper of phrases and appeared extremely attentive to her mates, however, I would suggest that she break out of the mindset of the accompanist for a work as dramatic as this one and be more assertive going forward (she certainly has the artistry to so dominate). It is all a process at CMSLC and they nurture and present aspiring artists as well as, or better than, any other organization in this town. Seldom, if ever, is a concert from this group less than satisfying.

I’m off to Latin America tomorrow and won’t be back in harness until January, so allow me to wish all of my gentle readers the most inspiring of holidays. Here’s hoping 2004 will be a year of health, security and peace. With anniversaries coming up of Ives, Janacek and Dvorak, it certainly will be a spirited one!

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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