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The Orchestral Nature of Chamber Music

New York
Alice Tully Hall
10/20/1998 -  
Robert Schumann: Piano Quartet in E Flat Major
Gustav Mahler (arr. Schoenberg): Das Lied von der Erde

Lorraine Hunt (mezzo-soprano), Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor)
Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, David Golub (conductor)

Some chamber music is played to sound as if it were written for an entire orchestra. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presented two works last evening that create this sonic illusion. With the Piano Quintet written in the same year (1842), the Schumann Piano Quartet is the first example of its kind, a piece for only four instruments that is composed so harmonically dense that one hears a larger ensemble at work. Schumann created the thickest chamber music up to his time and was followed in this style by Brahms, Reger and Schoenberg. The members of the quartet, Cho-Liang Lin (violin), Paul Neubauer (viola), Gary Hoffman (cello), and David Golub (piano), blended sonorities expertly for this piece and dared to take the Scherzo at a true molto vivace tempo which emphasized the gossamer quality of the fast passages reminiscent of Schumann's dear friend Mendelssohn. The main theme of the Andante Cantabile third movement, one of the loveliest elongated melodies that Schumann ever wrote (and the former theme song of "Tuesday Classics" on WWUH-FM for those listeners in the Northeast US), was not played as a flowing legato line by Mr. Hoffman in the normally gorgeous opening cello solo, nor was it repeated that way by Mr. Lin. Rather they each phrased this expressive song without words in a decidedly clipped, terse manner. If ever a line needed to be lovingly phrased, it is this Romantic jewel which is reworked in the Mahler that followed. Maddeningly, when the theme was reprised at the end of the movement by the viola, Mr. Neubauer played it with a strong vibrato and phrased it in a satisfying Kreislerian style almost bordering on portamento. Please, gentlemen! One way or the other! On the whole the performance was a good one, but the listener could hear the difference between four soloists who are excellent individual players and a quartet that plays (and hears) together on a regular basis.

Mahler never got to hear his Das Lied von der Erde but Schoenberg received a glowing report from his two students, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, who traveled from Vienna to Munich to attend the premiere under Bruno Walter six months after Mahler's death in 1911. Mahler and Schoenberg had often discussed the relative merits of orchestral versus chamber music (it was at Mahler's suggestion that Schoenberg re-scored his string sextet Verklaerte Nacht for full string orchestra) and when the younger man founded his Society for Private Musical Performances in 1918 he scaled down Mahler's Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen and assigned Alfredo Casella to prepare a two piano version of the Symphony #7. The Das Lied transcription is for fifteen solo instruments, the same plan as Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony #1 but with more colorful instrumentation, such as gong, harp and harmonium, chosen to accent the Chinese poetry that is the basis of the text. The Schoenberg Society had many fine musicians, including Webern's rehearsal pianist the young Rudolf Serkin, and the Lincoln Center Society is also blessed with a distinguished company including Ani Kavafian (violin), Ransom Wilson (flute), Milan Turkovic (bassoon), Robert Routch (horn) and David Shifrin (clarinet and artistic director). First chair players all and the secret of the Society's success, they were conducted on this occasion by an amateur (in the literal meaning of the word), the pianist from the Schumann, David Golub.

The intonation and articulation of each soloist was intense, the sound, especially the blending of the first and second violins (Ms. Kavafian and Mr. Lin), was delightful and the orchestration was amazingly, dazzlingly clear like the pool that reflects the activities in the pavilion of green and white porcelain of the third song, Von der Jugend. However, something was missing. Ah yes, the music! Mahler once wrote that "…the music is not the notes…" and last night's concert was an object lesson in what he meant. Who is to blame for this ultimately dull reading of one of the most passionate works of the early part of the century? There are three suspects. First, there is Schoenberg, but since he has been blamed for so much over the past hundred years, I exonerate him completely. Next there is the German musicologist Rainer Riehn who fleshed out the orchestration from Schoenberg's original sketches. Possibly. However, the prime suspect must be Mr. Golub who appeared painfully uncomfortable in front of the group and seemed to be longing for his inconspicuous seat in the back at the piano, now occupied by Anne-Marie McDermott. One of Mahler's favorite directions in his scores is nicht schleppend (don't drag) and although this does not appear in the original long orchestral interlude of the final song Der Abschied, perhaps Schoenberg needed to include it to enliven this performance.

The singing I can only classify as fair. Mr. Griffey, fresh from his appearance as Mitch in the world premiere of Andre Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire (reviewed in these pages recently), had a fine and expressive range for the part. He acted well with his voice, especially in the charming third song, and had no trouble sustaining his notes wholly even at high volume. However, his is the voice of a comprimario and although he does well within his limitations he does not have that special quality needed to dazzle. After the opening fanfares were delivered so convincingly by Mr. Routch the tenor should enter with a flourish and his five-note descent should be breathtaking. It was not. Ms. Hunt did not have the range required for her role. She was fine in the high register but was extremely shaky in the low (this may be a bit unfair since I still have the astounding instrument of Ewa Podles in my ear from Sunday's recital) and was often inaudible even in this soft chamber version. She had, poor thing, a major coughing spasm in the song Von der Schoenheit and perhaps she was under the weather last night. In spite of all these shortcomings, the evening still left us with a memory of the great Mahler farewell and the significant Schoenberg arrangement that was never performed until 1983. As Webern wrote after the original premiere, "…that which is mere fact evaporates, but the idea remains. That is what these songs are like."

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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