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Secret Longings

New York
Merkin Concert Hall
05/10/2000 -  
Hugo Wolf: Italian Serenade
Alban Berg: Lyric Suite
Johannes Brahms: Piano Quintet

Lucy Shelton (soprano)
Gilbert Kalish (piano)
Avalon String Quartet

My companion pointed out to me last evening how ironic it was that Alban Berg died of complications from the bite of a wasp, since so many of his works have sections that recreate the sounds of insects. What contemporary listeners to the Lyric Suite did not know (although some did suspect) was that there was within these passages an encrypted program expressing his hidden passions. Very married to Helene, Berg even depended on his wife for his livelihood, acting as a reluctant rent collector at her fam ily’s properties in and around Vienna, but was actually in love, in typically incestuous fin-de-siecle Viennese fashion, with Hanna Fuch-Robettin, the married sister of Franz Werfel, suitor and eventual third husband of Berg’s dear friend Alma Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfel. The wildly beautiful six-movement suite for string quartet unleashed such an explosion of pent-up emotions that cognoscenti began to investigate what was really going on. Hidden within the score are many references to Hanna and Alban (this is relatively easy to do in German transliteration of note pitch names to letters of the alphabet) as well as quotations from famous love duets and steamy symphonic depictions of the recent past. The Avalon String Quartet, a young group of eager musicians, captured the spirit of the work wonderfully and provided the small Merkin crowd with a highly energetic evening of unbridled love. Unfortunately, the two more experienced musicians chosen to augment their forces were the weakest part of the performan ce, the soprano not strong or expressive and the pianist woefully sloppy. However these young lions carried the day.

The Avalon won some sort of prize recently (do we really need to know which one?) and is tutored by the excellent Emerson group up in Hartford. Each of them seems very committed to their art and dug in masterfully to the difficult dodecaphonic language of the Berg, hampered only by their pedestrian sounding instruments (a common problem for young people). As a unit they play very well together, but I was particularly impressed with the tone and phrasing of the violist, Anthea Kreston. Much less satisfying, however, was the misguided policy of Merkin to allow latecomers to stroll in whenever they pleased, even though the Avalon had prudently programmed the Wolf as a seven-minute curtain raiser. After each movement of the Berg there was a rude interruption as patrons waddled to their spots and the performers were visibly shaken (also a young person’s trait: they haven’t developed that phlegmatic look of their elders as yet) several times. The Berg depends on both silence and delicacy and both were severely compromised by these constant intrusions

Johannes Brahms had just completed his compositional phase wherein he built his love for Clara Schumann directly into his music (in particular the Piano Concerto # 1 and the movements of the eventual Piano Quartet # 3 that were completed during his youth) when he embarked on the mighty Quintet, but the pangs of unrequited love are shockingly painful throughout, exacerbating the Sturm und Drang of the work as a whole. Once again the Avalon’s emotional level was of the proper white hot intensity and I began to reflect on the phenomenon that this was in many ways music only fit to be interpreted by younger artists who can still experience the sting of these regrets without the inevitable Wordsworthian recollection in tranquility reserved for those of us who still have the pain but overlay it with an inevitable historical perspective. The Avalon were particularly adept at the complex rhythmic nature of the third and fourth movements and phrased these sections quite expertly and crisply (even though the pianist was slurring rather badly several times) and left the crowd in a highly agitated state of appreciative applause. These four young people seem to be on a path towards a bright future. Hopefully they can sustain their intensity for many years to come.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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