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Transformations And Death

New York
92nd Street Y, Theresa L. Kaufman Concert Hall
10/16/2010 -  
Franz Schubert: Quartettsatz in C minor, D. 703 – Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960 – String Quartet in D minor, D. 810 (“Death and the Maiden”)
Daniel Kellogg: Soft Sleep Shall Contain You: A Meditation on Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden for String Quartet (New York premiere, 92Y Co-Commission)

Benjamin Hochman (piano), Takács Quartet: Edward Dusinberre, Karoly Schranz (violins), Geraldine Walther (viola), Andras Fejér (cello)

Takács Quartet (© Ellen Appel)

“Death and the Maiden” predated Franz Schubert by at least four centuries as a grisly pornographic image from paintings of the “Dance of Death”. It postdated Schubert by 186 years with Daniel Kellogg’s “meditation” on “Death and the Maiden”, given its New York premiere last night. In between, the image was transformed into poetry, books, one drama, a Mike Nichols movie, Schubert’s own setting of the song as quartet, with Gustav Mahler’s string orchestration of the same work.

It was the original song by Schubert which, even today, is both moving and ghostly. The ending may be of reconciliation, but before that, the barely moving harmonies, the chilling monotony harks of antique church basements and rat-scurrying half-moonlit tombs.

With a single poem, the composer provided not so much a danse macabre as dream, from gloomy night to a flickering dawn wakening. With his quartet, three years later, Schubert gave impetus to the deep undertow of the song, opening its vast emotions.

To appreciate Schubert’s transformation, the Takács Quartet offered a performance of complexity and depth. Those second movement variations on the original song were inspired last night with playing ranging from the tender to the harsh. Few first violinists could offer sweeter solos than Edward Dusinberre, who recently replaced the eponymous founder. But it was in the harsh measures towards the end of this movement, where the entire group seemed to catch the whirling mosaic of the dream.

The first movement is as emblematic of the subtitle as the Andante variations, for the sudden changes of mood and dynamics were the notes of a man not quite in control of himself. The Takács was in control, but even at its quietest, the movement had an underlying nervous energy, an energy extending through the third movement dance (and its folkish trio), and a whizzing satisfaction all the way to the Presto ending.

D. Kellogg (© Coco T. Doggé)

Takács presently is quartet-in-residence at the University of Colorado, where their colleague Daniel Kellogg wrote a work especially for them. Co-commissioned by the 92Y, this “meditation” on the Schubert, song materializes out of a string quartet mist into a half-light, becomes more glowing, returns to darkness, and ends–almost implausibly– on a quiet major key.

But Mr. Kellogg’s title, Soft Sleep Shall Contain You, is the rationale for that ending. None of the rest is “soft” sleep. The blurry mist is unnerving, and the theme, when it arrives, while not the literal Schubert, has the harmonic foundation, the monotone, and the ghostly beginning. Mr. Kellogg puts it away, and his meditation contains all the elements of a dream. His moods go from sweet upper-register melodies to the harshness of the ebowing hard on their strings in complex counterpoint. Yet it all coalesces simply because the Schubert “death” theme in the major key appears like a leitmotiv during the 15 minutes.

It wasn’t all string quartet. Taking the place of the ailing Jeffrey Kahane, the young Israeli-born Benjamin Hochman played the Schubert “Opus posthumous” B Flat Sonata (The program titles it “D. 960”, but I prefer to keep the death motif!) It was a cool, classical performance. He didn’t play the repetition in the first movement, thereby denying us some mysterious Schubert measures, but otherwise this was an excellent if not memorable performance.

Perhaps Mr. Hochman was unfairly matched. Between the fury of the opening Quartettsatz and the Takács passion of the D Minor Quartet, a serenely-produced sonata had the misfortune to become the calm between a series of truly emotional conflagrations.

Harry Rolnick



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