Camerata San Antonio is one violin short of a string quartet this fall for a worthy reason: Violinist Matthew Zerweck is taking paternity leave. In compensation, the remaining members have been able to explore some of the literature for string trio, with side trips to two and four in the company of frequent collaborator, pianist Viktor Valkov. For the Nov. 15 concert, Camerata visited an unaccustomed venue, the intimate recital hall in the Palo Alto College performing arts center. The space proved acoustically dry but left nothing unheard – including the occasional loud expulsion of breath by which cellist Ken Freudigman telegraphed some especially important turn in the music. The towering finale, Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quartet in A, had an especially generous number of those. The first half took less-traveled roads to Clara Schumann’s Three Romances for violin and piano and Ernst von Dohnanyi’s Serenade for string trio. The eminent violinist Joseph Joachim was the thread connecting all three composers: He collaborated closely with both Clara Schumann and Brahms, and he invited Dohnanyi to teach at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, of which the violinist was director.
Clara Schumann was one of Europe’s most celebrated pianists in the middle decades of the 19th century. She composed a good deal of music – much of it for her own solo and chamber music performances – in her 20s. After a five-year hiatus, she had a burst of activity in 1853, the year she met Brahms and the year of the Three Romances. Her husband, Robert Schumann, was committed to a mental institution the following year, and Clara became the sole support of seven children, including a newborn boy. Those circumstances dictated that she concentrate on her lucrative concert career and set composition aside.
That’s our loss. On the evidence of the Three Romances, Clara Schumann was a composer of considerable merit. The whole set flies by in only 10 minutes or so, but a lot of music is packed into that slender frame. The violin is given generally long-lined, declarative melodies that sustain interest by avoiding the obvious. The piano part, considerably busier, invites billowing dynamics and sculpted phrasing. The two parts are distinct, even opposite personalities in earnest conversation – for which the cool reserve of violinist Anastasia Parker and the heated passion of Mr. Valkov were well suited.
Dohnanyi’s Serenade is so immediately engaging that it’s easy not to notice how expertly it is crafted. Dohnanyi composed this five-movement work in 1902, when he was in his mid-20s, and in some ways it looks back to the Romanticism of Brahms. But the energetic, intricately wrought counterpoint – especially in the fugal Scherzo and bustling Rondo – and the fresh harmonies contain at least a hint of the new century. Mr. Freudigman put plenty of snap into the occasional Hungarian folk tropes, violist Emily Freudigman spun lovely melody to open the Romanza, and Ms. Parker was especially effective in the disconsolate Theme and Variations, the emotional center of the Serenade.
Brahms was a young man of 28 or 29 in 1861 when he completed his second piano quartet, a chamber work that is symphonic in both duration (about 50 minutes) and ambition. The allegro movements that open and close the work seem steeped in testosterone, the Scherzo has a restive undercurrent, and even the sweet Poco adagio is agitated by rocking eighth-note figures that seem prepared at any moment to spring into action. The performance was big, bold, and muscular – words that often come to mind when Mr. Valkov is involved in chamber music. Those traits were amplified by the physical circumstances: The seven-foot Steinway B Mr. Valkov was playing might not have been enough piano for a big concert hall, but it was possibly too much piano for Palo Alto’s little recital hall. At times the piano overwhelmed the strings in volume, but the pianist’s in-the-bones Romanticism was the driving force in a compelling performance.
Coda: Technical difficulties kept me from posting a timely review of Camerata’s October concert, with three works for string trios performed by Ms. Parker, Ms. Freudigman, and Mr. Freudigman in the University of the Incarnate Word concert hall. They opened with Krzysztof Penderecki’s String Trio of 1990-91, music that is less self-consciously avant-garde than the clouds of dissonance that characterized much of his music from the late 1950s and 1960s, but no less startling. The first of its two movements was the more remarkable, with extended solo cadenzas of widely different character for each of the instruments – all played with conviction. Jean Francaix’s String Trio in C of 1933 was at the opposite pole – three brief witty, jaunty, cheeky movements and one wistful, lyrical Andante. A warm, affectionate account of Mozart’s grand Divertimento in E-flat, one of his longest works, closed the concert.
Read Mike Greenberg’s review at incidentlight.com
Clara Schumann, Three Romances, Op. 22
One of the most celebrated pianists of the 1800s was Clara Wieck Schumann (1819-1896). Women concert soloists were somewhat rare during her early lifetime, but she won her fame by her dazzling yet heartfelt performances. Her father Friedrich was her teacher not only for the piano but also in the rudiments of composition, which she worked at joyfully from an early age.
A lodger at the Wieck household (and also a student of Friedrich) during the 1830s was Robert Schumann. Clara and Robert fell in love and wished to marry. However, Clara’s father exercised his right (under German law at that time) as Clara’s “owner,” and refused to give his consent. Clara and Robert took him to court over the matter in 1840 and won. They were married that year. The Schumanns had eight children, but Clara continued to perform, teach, and compose as much as her time allowed. Robert found employment at first in Leipzig, then in Dresden, and finally in Dusseldorf
Robert suffered from what is now believed to have been Manic-Depressive Disorder. It worsened in the early 1850s. In 1854, he attempted suicide and was placed in a sanatorium until his death in 1856. From that period until near the end of her life, Clara Schumann worked unceasingly to support her children. Performances and tours took first consideration, including concertos (notably her own piano concerto) and recitals ̶ both solo and duo. One of her closest collaborators was Josef Joachim, perhaps the most celebrated violinists of his day.
Clara composed very little after her husband’s death, and the Three Romances, Op. 22, written between 1853 and 1855, was one of her last works. She dedicated the set to Joachim, who wrote to her, calling them “a sheer delight to play, marvelous and heavenly.”
In Clara’s century, the “romance” was a genre of “character piece,” a short instrumental piece conveying one or more moods or emotions. In the Op. 22 romances, Clara does not identify such specifics in the first two, but merely gives us generic tempo markings (Andante molto and Allegretto). For the final Romance, however, the tempo marking is Leidenschaftlich Schnell: “Passionately fast.”
- Andante Molto. A wistful beginning and ending frames a more fervent center, painted with broad strokes. The piano part is amazing for its dual role of accompaniment to the violin and soloist with engaging melodic ideas.
- Allegretto. There is a certain coyness to the opening theme. It becomes playful like a game between the violin and the piano. When the “coy” theme returns it brings more earnestness with it.
- Leidenschaftlich Schnell. Long intense lines in the violin are accompanied by a virtuosic piano part. The central section has something of a drawing room quality in its “proper” demeanor. A return to the passion of the opening becomes tame and sweet for a sketch of the violin and piano interlocked in a sweet, intimate adieu.
Dohnányi, Serenade in C Major, Op. 10
Ernst von Dohnányi (18771960) is considered to be among the finest Hungarian composers between Liszt and Bartók. He conducted a brilliant career in Europe and the U.S., first as a pianist and later as a composer and conductor. At times, he was also a musical administrator (Director, Budapest Academy) and a rugged individualist whose popularity was sometimes only temporary. Dohnányi was not a prolific composer, and he produced only nine published chamber works. The earliest of these owe a great deal to the influence of Brahms, whom he knew, and who arranged the Vienna premiere of Dohnányi’s Piano Quintet No. 1.
The Serenade is Dohnányi’s only work for string trio, but it is a masterful one. In it we can hear the beginning of the composer’s most mature handling of harmony, exotic scales, and unusual key combinations. There are also some humorous surprises in this work. Sir Donald Tovey (1875-1940) pointed out that the first movement march ends “by three meditative murmurs of its first bar followed by a figure like a sneeze.” The Romanza incorporates effects that evoke the feeling of Spanish or Hungarian scale modes. The third movement is a scherzo but is worked out in fugal style, with the theme of the trio eventually combining with the main theme in a double fugue. The work is rounded out by a witty rondo finale with “its mocking vein and its indignant end with the trio of the opening march.” (Tovey)
Dohnányi’s Serenade is a serenade in the classical tradition of Mozart, as seen outwardly in its beginning and ending march rhythms. However, there is an inward connection with Mozart as well: a sensitive balance between formal purity and dramatic purpose. As Tovey puts it, “There is no stroke of form without its dramatic value, and no stroke of drama that does not serve to complete the form.”
Brahms, Piano Quartet in A Major, Op. 26
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) often explored new compositional territory with a pair of works rather than singly. The first two symphonies, string quartets, and string sextets came into existence in this way. Although Brahms had worked on movements for one piano quartet as early as the 1850s (eventually becoming Op. 60), his first completed essays in this medium stemmed from 1861-62 in the form of the G Minor and A Major Piano Quartets. These run somewhat parallel to the first two symphonies by Brahms: the stormy minor-key antecedent work giving way to a sunny optimism in a major-key consequent work. Brahms sent both finished quartets to Josef Joachim for criticism (and help with the string parts), and the violinist was quite enthusiastic about them: “I have gotten to like the A major quartet more and more. The tone of tenderness is well contrasted with sparkling life.” A few of Joachim’s further remarks about the quartet are illuminating:
Your second sections flow splendidly and show a wealth of contrapuntal device. The first A major movement is an especially good example. This movement, so full of lyricism as to suggest the influence of Schubert, also contains its share of fairly strict, imitative counterpoint. The development section also contains an experimental group of three variations on the main theme, which moves into the remote key of C minor.
The wonderful Poco Adagio with its ambiguous passion is a nocturnal movement beginning and ending with muted strings. The “shadowing” of the piano’s melody at the beginning is reminiscent of Schumann, while the key pattern appears to be influenced deeply by Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major. The ending of the movement is an elaborate variation on its opening.
The Scherzo is a well-rounded whole. It reminds one a good deal of the later Beethoven; the structure is so compact as well as the turn of the melody. Amiable as its overall mood is, this movement does come remarkably close to the spirit of Beethoven. The main section attempts to accomplish a small sonata form, and the minor-key trio strives to be unified with the main section by borrowing the rhythm of the main theme for its own secondary thematic idea.
The finale is a refreshing complement to the preceding movements. With its plethora of themes it seems to sprawl at times into what Beethoven might have called an “unbuttoned” state. However, frequently enough, Brahms buttons up the movement with tight, asymmetrical rhythms and periodic returns to the main rondo theme. The movement is capped by a final animato coda, the sound of which verges on the symphonic.