AN ENCHANTING CELEBRATION
July 2, 2022
Music, for the most part, moves in inexorable forward motion, though there are exceptions to this rule. Retrograde, a technique that composers employ to create variety, involves mirror images of melodies and rhythms. Then there are examples of compositional dexterity that make your head (and ears) spin. The minuet and trio in Haydn’s Symphony No. 47 are precise palindromes, as is a portion of the Act 2 interlude in Berg’s opera Lulu.
But if composers, and listeners, are accustomed to sonic events proceeding ahead, we can surely step back in time to experience different musical styles and periods. This is part of what makes the aptly titled final ChamberFest concert “An Enchanting Celebration.” The program opens in the late 20th century and wends its way backward, landing finally in the mid-19th century. The journey underlines the truism that fresh creativity prevails at every point in the history of music.
Few works could sound more piquantly modern than Jörg Widmann’s Fantasie for Solo Clarinet, a tour de force of artistic cheek in which the German composer-clarinetist summarizes the instrument’s character and technical abilities in seven action-packed minutes. Widmann, whose music has been hailed for its audacious originality, was 19 in 1993 when he wrote the Fantasie, which embraces “everything I love about the clarinet,” he has said. There’s so much to love, from the manner in which the music pays clever tribute to Stravinsky and Boulez — Widmann’s acknowledged inspirations for the work — to the use of disparate styles, including klezmer and jazz. The clarinet plays everything in what the composer calls a “Harlequin spirit,” referring to the comic servant in the Italian commedia dell’arte. The presence of multiphonics, bent tones, key clicks, flutter tonguing, and other techniques makes the piece a test of virtuosity to go along with the player’s powers of whimsy.
The provenance of folk songs isn’t always clear, which means that some of the pieces in Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs may obliterate the chronology of this program’s putative reverse excursion. No matter. The Italian composer (1925-2003) was celebrated for the experimental brilliance and power of his works, notably Coro, for orchestra, chorus, and soloists, and the series of solo works for various instruments called Sequenza. But Berio achieved his widest popularity with the folk-song cycle, of which he wrote:
“I have always sensed a profound uneasiness while listening to popular songs performed with piano accompaniment. This is one of the reasons why, in 1964, I wrote Folk Songs — a tribute to the artistry and the vocal intelligence of Cathy Berberian. This work exists in two versions: one for voice and seven players (flute/piccolo, clarinet, two percussions, harp, viola, cello), the other for voice and orchestra (1973). It is an anthology of eleven folk songs of various origins (United States, Armenia, France, Sicily, Sardinia, etc.), chosen from old records, printed anthologies, or heard sung from folk musicians and friends. I have given the songs a new rhythmic and harmonic interpretation: in a way, I have recomposed them. The instrumental part has an important function: it is meant to underline and comment on the expressive and cultural roots of each song. Such roots signify not only the ethnic origins of the songs but also the history of the authentic uses that have been made of them. Two of the eleven songs (“La donna ideale” and “Ballo”) are only intentionally popular: I composed them myself in 1947 to anonymous Genoese and Sicilian texts.”
The version for voice and seven players being performed at ChamberFest heightens the intimacy between singer and instruments to poignant and delightful effect. Berio’s instrumental colors and harmonic language apply telling nuances to the texts, whose meanings can be felt even when the language isn’t familiar.
In some respects, Brahms would find the nonet version of his Serenade No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11 unfamiliar, but would he really object? (Nice symmetry: The very first work at this year’s festival, Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16 in C major, K. 545, was offered with an accompaniment by Edvard Grieg that might have tickled Amadeus.) Brahms initially composed the piece in 1857 for nine players (flute, two clarinets, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, bass), but he destroyed the manuscript after Clara Schumann cast disparaging words about the scoring. He revised the work for chamber orchestra, then full orchestra (usually performed), then piano four-hands. (Brahms’ equally captivating Serenade No. 2, from 1859, underwent similar revisions.)
Because Brahms had discarded his original score for the Serenade No. 1 for nine players, it has been left to plucky transcribers to figure out what the composer may have intended in terms of instrumental usage and myriad other matters. Among the transcriptions is the one ChamberFest is using from 2007 by the British musicologist Alan Boustead, who described the challenge: “To reduce all the details of the existing orchestral score to a nonet would result in an unacceptable, uncharacteristic work in which all nine musicians would play almost entirely without rests. Rather, the principle of reconstruction has been to discover textures that would have given rise to Brahms orchestrating in the way he did. Many details of the orchestral version have been discarded as being unquestionably added during recasting; however, at many other points the reconstruction is almost certainly exact.”
What’s never in doubt are the charm and warmth woven into the score by the 24-year-old Brahms, who wrote the serenade as a contrast to a much weightier work he was also composing at the time, his First Piano Concerto. The serenade is cast in six movements, each with a particular character, from bucolic vibrancy and dance-like mystery to poetic elegance and beyond. The third movement (Adagio non troppo) is one of Brahms’ most affecting creations in any genre, and the final Rondo — with a nod to this program’s title — is a thoroughly enchanting celebration.
© 2022 Donald Rosenberg