Color X Expanse
Notes on the Program

June 24, 2022

With music from Austria, Ireland, America, Hungary, and France, this program could be considered an international banquet. It’s also an opportunity to hear an assortment of contrasting pieces within the imposing space of Disciples Christian Church, thus the title “Color x Expanse.” These works comprise a breathtaking flow of artistic juices, at once charming and nostalgic, bitingly modern, impassioned, folk-oriented, and rapturous.

The Vienna-born Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962) was a triple threat as violinist, composer, and pianist. He is most beloved for the sweet generosity of his violin playing, which can be heard on numerous recordings. Kreisler epitomized the gemütlich aura of his native city before World War I, though he left Austria in 1914 for New York, where, aside from a period in the 1920s and ’30s in Europe, he resided until his death.

Kreisler paid tribute to the Vienna of yesteryear in Three Pieces for Piano Trio, one of a selection of works he arranged for violin, cello, and piano. He played these popular tunes often with his brother, the cellist Hugo Kreisler, and the collection became a favorite of ensembles eager to bring a light, sentimental touch to concert programming. “The Old Refrain,” which opens the group, originally was Kreisler’s 1915 arrangement for voice and piano of an old Viennese song by the German composer Johann Brandl set to words by Alice Mattullath. Kreisler dedicated it to his friend John McCormack, the great Irish tenor, and later arranged it for violin and piano. The trio version is by Robert Biederman.

“Farewell to Cucullain,” a tribute to the warrior hero in Irish mythology, is better known by two other titles — “Londonderry Air,” the traditional Irish tune, and “Oh Danny Boy,” whose lyrics are set to the air. The music itself needs no introduction. As set so sensitively for violin, cello, and piano, it is as touching as any version with words. Kreisler initially arranged the “Miniature Viennese March” for violin and piano and later expanded the piece’s sly exuberance with the addition of an earthy cello.

In an entirely different world is the fourth work at ChamberFest this year by George Walker, the Piano Sonata No. 5. Walker combined his virtuosity as a concert pianist with a penetrating compositional voice in his five piano sonatas, written over the span of half a century. The Fifth, from 2003, is the shortest (and his last work for piano), packing a remarkable amount of powerful material into five minutes. The music is built of short motives developed with utmost economy of means. Only pianists of dauntless persuasion can triumph over the work’s challenges.

Most of the small number of pieces for violin and cello are arrangements, though several original works for the combination stand out. The most well-known is Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello, from the early 1920s. But it was preceded by another masterpiece, Zoltán Kodály’s Duo for Violin and Cello, Op. 7, written in 1914. Like his Hungarian compatriot Béla Bartók, Kodály extensively researched his homeland’s folk music and employed these materials in his music. The violin-cello duo waited a decade after its creation to receive its premiere at the International Society for Contemporary Music Festival in Salzburg, Austria.

The wait — for violinist, cellists, and audiences alike — was worth it. The duo melds Hungarian folk elements with classical structures in three movements of intense and vibrant invention. Kodály’s distinctive musical voice can be heard as the instruments converse in modal language animated by myriad string techniques. The first movement is a tempestuous dialogue full of quirky turns of phrase and zestful interplay. In the haunting Adagio, the cello sings a mournful melody and the violin answers with poetic fervor. They continue their passionate conversation in soaring and hushed utterances shaded by harmonics, pizzicato passages, and arpeggiated figures. The finale is a tour de force of searching solo and duo exchanges followed by episodes of folksy audacity.

Composers often take their time finishing a piece before the public has the chance to hear it. The case of Gabriel Fauré’s Piano Quintet No. 1 in D minor may be one of the most extreme. The French composer began to conceive the music in 1887 and only got around to completing it in 1905. But the quintet bears no evidence of struggle. From the soft opening piano ripples to the finale’s victorious exclamations, the work is a model of rich, otherworldly Romanticism as only Fauré could conjure it. (Think of his sublime Requiem.)

The music unfolds in a series of seemingly endless melodies — like a French version of Wagner, with a more fragrant touch — that weave chromatically through neighboring harmonic regions. The first movement’s elaborate and ethereal piano figures provide a glistening soundscape for the strings to share themes of sweet and sweeping urgency. The effect is mesmerizing, and the magic continues in the slow movement. Here, Fauré reminds the musicians to achieve the requisite nuances through such markings as dolce, cantabile, and espressivo. Just when you think the composer can’t possibly wander further and then find a way to return home, he does so with captivating ardor. It is almost as if he refuses to let go — or that we want him to.

The clouds mostly part in the last movement, a splendid example of Fauré’s command of contrapuntal writing. The genial opening theme passes from piano to strings, becoming more intense, with hints of conflict along the way. But the composer is in no mood to linger in darkness, preferring to nudge the instruments along in celebratory fashion.

© 2022 Donald Rosenberg

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