Notes on the Program

June 23, 2022

Can music be autobiographical? It certainly can reflect the artistic personality of the composer. But, as suggested earlier in these notes, the temptation to glean things about a creator’s life from a piece of art is a slippery slope. Yes, Richard Strauss’ Sinfonia domestica paints scenes of family joy and strife with splendid orchestral flair, and Mahler’s symphonies can at times be viewed as reflections of the composer’s experiences and psychological frames of mind. But these pieces, like other works with colorful and philosophical programmatic descriptions, in the end are marvels of craft and expression beyond the messages they may imply. What music can do, as no other art form can, is use its mystery to contemplate the complexities of life, in its abundance of feeling and intellectual possibility.

Such elucidation lies at the core of “Luminescence,” this program of music by George Walker, Alfred Schnittke, and Mozart. While there are no specific connections to actual events in the works by Walker and Mozart, Schnittke’s Piano Quintet resounds as the Soviet composer’s stark depiction of tragedy engulfing him. The collection of pieces from the 18th and 20th centuries being offered here highlights the continuous search for meaning and discovery through what largely are abstract artistic means.

The third work by Walker celebrated this year at ChamberFest Cleveland, Music for Three is a terse explosion of ideas for violin, cello, and piano. Written in 1971 and revised in 1991, the score is among Walker’s most compelling forays into bold modernism, and an example of how the composer was able to transform his aesthetic in so many directions (think of how far he had traveled from the Lyric for Strings of 1946 played on the festival’s second program). In a tightly structured seven minutes, the trio places the instruments in violent and enigmatic confrontation. Rhythms are relentless and driven, and the players engage in extremes of dynamics and range. Tonal clusters give way to statements of independent ferocity, with the instruments occasionally seeming to take sides. Walker holds everything together through remarkable clarity of texture and form. It is a breathless display of compositional mastery.

Schnittke (1934-1998) gradually moved away from the influence of Shostakovich and forged musical materials through a technique known as polystylism. His works have been championed in the West by such Soviet emigres as the late cellist-conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and violinist Gidon Kremer. Schnittke’s music became more inward as he responded to the challenges of humankind, and his Piano Quintet (1976) is a prime example of a composer deeply affected by experience, in this case the death of his mother. In this regard, it aspires to the status of autobiography in sound, however elusive that may be.

The work, in five movements, is almost unrelievedly dark, the composer’s sadness and anger portrayed in music of intense passion. The opening movement begins with a brooding piano solo that leads to passages of disembodied strings and mournful utterances. The strings slither quietly amid desolate piano lines. A somber waltz dominates the second movement, with strings moving in tipsy, dissonant counterpoint and the piano shaping eerie lines. Soft string trills hover above the piano’s lilting waltz until the strings screech downward and textures become increasingly blurred.

Schnittke considered the third and fourth movements to be the work’s most crucial. Both teem with hallucinatory gestures — clusters, mystical piano chords and bell-like tolling, desolate and brutal string statements, a brief image of heaven suggested in a major chord. The composer said these movements “are based upon situations of genuine grief, about which I wish to say nothing because they are of a highly personal nature and can only be devalued by words.”

Mozart would have had good reasons to pour the vicissitudes of life into music he composed in 1788, including his last three symphonies, the Piano Concerto No. 26, and the Sonata in C major for piano performed at the start of this year’s ChamberFest. He was heavily in debt, and his fourth child died (two others had died previously, another would perish in 1789, only two would reach adulthood). But — more fodder for caution concerning supposed autobiographical aspects of music — there isn’t a trace of woe in Mozart’s Divertimento in E-flat Major, K. 563, a trio for violin, viola, and cello. It is the only work he completed with this instrumentation, a compositional challenge in terms of balance and harmony. And the music astonishes on every page.

There are lots of pages, to the benefit of us all. The Divertimento’s six movements burst with delectable and heartfelt invention. Each instrument plays a significant role in the flourish of conversations. The first movement begins with a downward unison arpeggio establishing the key of E-flat. The ensuing interplay is Mozart at his most animated and graceful, with spirited comments passed among the instruments in virtuosic displays of counterpoint. Lyricism is the paramount quality of the slow movement, which claims the only hints of wistfulness in the score.

One of the notable aspects of the Divertimento, among many, is the presence of two Menuettos — the first stately and the second with two trio sections caressing the lilting Austrian dance known as the Ländler. In between the Menuettos is an Andante that unfolds as a seamless series of variations, which the instruments share with amiable elegance. The final Rondo is a joyous romp in 6/8 time with all sorts of athletic and affectionate challenges to keep players and listeners glued to every Mozartian moment.

© 2022 Donald Rosenberg

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