Bard Festival, New York State, USA: Saturday 19 August 2006
As mentioned in the previous review of the Liszt Festival at Bard College in southern New York, the festival’s title Liszt and his Times has been more accurate than New German enthusiasts might have wanted it to be, for many of the works and composers had only tenuous connections with Liszt and associates in Weimar. The afternoon chamber music concert of Saturday, August 19 was, oddly enough, the single concert in which the majority of composers were from the New German School: Peter Cornelius, Felix Draeseke, Eduard Lassen, Joachim Raff and of course Liszt himself.
A major work of Robert Volkmann, his early Piano Trio in F major, Op. 3, opened the second half of the program and Robert Franz was included with single song on the first half. Cornelius, Lassen and Liszt themselves were also represented only by song, Felix Draeseke with a single piano work, his Valse-Scherzo Op. 5, No. 2. Joachim Raff had the major representation: his marvelous Sextet in G minor, Op. 178 for strings.
James Deaville, author of the New Groves entry on Raff and longtime member in both the Liszt Society of America and the International Draeseke Society and professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, gave a wonderfully lively and informative pre-concert talk centering around the concept of chamber music in the 19th century and why this category is so seldom related to Liszt and the New Germans – as we all realize, Liszt wrote next to nothing and despite the one time legendary popularity of Raff, the subsequent century of denigration, vilification and ignoring of this master had all but eliminated attention to chamber music production among the New Germans in general.
The concert opened full blast with Raff’s Sextet and as far as this reviewer has been able to ascertain, the Bard performance seems to have been only the second performance of the work in the United States since records of concert programs have come into collation. An unfortunately poorly advertised double performance of it in the summer of 2005 with the redoubtable Jupiter Chamber Players in New York prevented this reviewer’s attendance. The six members of the Bard Festival string quartet and assisting violist and cellist were drawn from the American Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra of Leon Botstein, founder and organizer of the annual Bard summer festival. The overall interpretation of Raff’s Sextet was indeed satisfying. If some reservations are here uttered, they are truly negligible in consideration of the overall effect which the group’s playing brought forth, for there were cheers and standees at the conclusion of the piece.
Raff’s first movement truly grasps the listener’s interest immediately and unfurls with continual invention and surprising turns in a style which does indeed evoke parallels with Mendelssohn in particular. But Raff is his own master and has his own voice which, if not perceived by listeners being initiated to his work with the Sextet performance, provided both elegance and verve, convincing the obvious majority of listeners of the worthwhile nature of the work In the first movement (Allegro) a couple of caveats should be mentioned: throughout the movement, particularly in the first minute or so, the sense of ensemble gave rise to a perception of limited rehearsal and the repeat in the opening was not taken – a fact verified for this reviewer by the second cellist in an encounter during the intermission. The second movement scherzo (Allegro molto) was duly noted in James Deaveille’s excellent notes as being placed second in the overall scheme, still a detail worthy of note in the 1870s in works of traditional four movement sonata form outline. Those insistent on Mendelssohn had their moments of verification here, though most would have to admit the recognizable distinction of Raff in the marvelous lyrical theme of the trio. From a performance level the highpoint of the sextet became the slow third movement (Larghetto), not only wonderful in its own material and development, but psychologically perfectly reserved between scherzo and finale. The opportunities for soloistic display in this movement may have contributed to what may be termed somewhat more involvement. The Bard players tore into the finale (Allegro) with arresting gusto. With many unison passages the music became almost orchestral in intensity and the sense of thrust in the performance made the conclusion truly exciting, earning Raff demonstrable enthusiastic appreciation from audience response.
The case for the neglected masterpieces of Felix Draeseke has been fervent but nowhere near as successful as the recent revival of interest in Joachim Raff’s output. It is all the more lamentable for the Draesekeaner that something more substantial than a five minute piano work did not represent him. Be that as it may, the young virtuoso pianist Anna Polonsky delivered an exemplary performance of Draeseke’s Valse-Scherzo, Op. 5, No. 2 (available on AK/Coburg DR 0002), intelligently balancing Chopinesque valse parallels and Draeseke's truly quirky harmonic twists (scherzo elements) and chordal voicing. The pianissimo ending elicited some chuckles from the appreciatively smiling and handsomely applauding listeners.
The conclusion of the concert’s first half consisted of a group of songs by Eduard Lassen (Ich weil’ in tiefer Einsamkeit of 1883), Robert Franz (Auf geheimem Waldespfad from the Schilflieder, Op. 2 of 1844), Peter Cornelius (Ein Ton, from the 1854 Trauer und Trost, Op. 3 and Die Koenige, from the Weihnachtslieder Op. 8 of 1856, revised 1859) and Franz Liszt (Blume und Duft, 1866). Anna Polonsky returned to accompany baritone Andrew Garland who, with his well trained light hued baritone (and marvelous German enunciation!) conveyed accurate and affecting mood and sentiment changes in his traversal of the afternoon’s song repertoire, The reason for choosing the song of the Belgian-Danish Eduard Lassen was evidently made because Liszt had written an Albumblatt transcription of it for one of his many paramours. Certainly a lovely song, it alone could never even begin to evaluate what worth Lassen may have. Warned in advance, Robert Franz’s song was over almost before one realized it was under way. Franz is of course one of the true masters (like Cornelius) of the German Lied and we are assured that Liszt had a great appreciation of him, often inviting him to Weimar. Cornelius is also (like Franz) not really known to a large public because of his preference for vocal music, not only for the myriad number of songs (to his own texts!) but also for a vast amount of choral music and three attempts at opera. Ein Ton lives up to its title uniquely, since the text is quasi sung-recited on a single note while the piano part comments with most remarkable tone painting – here one could almost feel the singer’s self-control about to burst as he fought palpable urges to end a cadence with a different note. If chamber music is not generally associated with the New Germans, the Lieder of Liszt seem to maintain a somewhat neglected aspect of his output. He really is a major song writer and this is certainly evidenced in Blume und Duft. Andrew Garland and Anna Polansky were warmly awarded prolonged applause and appreciative bravos for their excellent and superbly professional efforts.
The second half of the concert was dedicated to two works: the Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano in F major, Op. 3 of Robert Volkmann and Franz Liszt’s monumental keyboard masterwork the Piano Sonata in B minor.
Although technically considered a Schumannianer, it seems that Volkmann was a welcome name in the Liszt circle and James Deaville accredits him with innovative traits paralleling developments in the Weimar circle. During his lifetime he was considered an internationally important composer and certainly, now that there is a recording of his Symphony in D minor available (CPO), one can demonstrably hear the obvious influence which the work had on Borodin and his Second Symphony in B minor (Borodin’s Second Symphony – A Study in Alchemy? Alan Krueck, Midwest Chapter Meeting of the American Musicological Society, April 1963 at Iowa State University, Iowa City, unpublished). Volkmann certainly deserves attention and one is grateful that his first piano trio was selected. His Piano Trio No.2 in B flat minor, Op.5 was by far the more popular of the two in the 19th century and it has maintained a tenacious hold on attention to the present, if admittedly on the extreme edges of chamber music repertoire. The Bard performance of the First is its first concert encounter in this writer’s lifetime.
Cast in four movements, it has obvious formal indebtedness to Beethoven, most noticeably in the opening Allegro. Be that as it may, the movement attracted with its originality of material and occasional departure from expected means of transition. Interestingly enough Volkmann, at a much earlier date than Raff’s sextet, places his scherzo second. delivering a movement of appealing fleet encounter, reminding this listener not only of Beethoven but also of Hummel’s chamber music with piano. In the following Andante Volkmann revealed his almost Schumannesque lyrical streak, with a movement of arresting harmony and memorable melody. But the movement which really seals the conclusion that this piano trio should be played more often is the utterly mesmerizing finale, Allegro con fuoco.
The ensemble, made up of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet piano, Sharon Roffmann violin, and Sophie Chao cello, had demonstrated excellent partnership throughout and deep understanding of style with commitment to bringing it out. Perhaps a slightly better sense of ensemble was sensed in this trio than with the Bard string players in the Raff - perhaps because it was three instruments, perhaps because of more rehearsal time. One thing was apparent: there was an agreed on factor that Jean-Efflam Bovouzet was in charge and the strings joined with discipline for the projection of a truly unified group especially exciting and rewarding in Volkmann’s fabulous invention throughout his rondo finale. These ears were stunned and the eyes stared in disbelief as Bavouzet launched the finale’s opening with an accuracy of attack and fleetness of finger work for delivering what must be one of Volkmann’s most original thematic concepts. His companions followed his lead beautifully to the tumultuous, thrilling conclusion which brought the audience to its feet, as much for the revelation of the merits of Volkmann’s First Piano Trio as their virtuoso prowess,
After the experience of the Volkmann this listener had some doubts if Jeremy Denk, an unknown artist to me, would be able to do much with such a staple of piano repertoire as Liszt’s Sonata in B minor and hold the audience’s attention for the good half hour plus of duration. Of reasonable stature and build Mr.Denk did not project any semblance of flamboyance. The beginning of the Liszt was presented perhaps in a slightly clipped fashion, but this is certainly fine since the fragments in the sonata are related. Once passed the beginning Mr. Denk revealed a studied awareness of design which convinced genuine understanding of linking the various moods and tempi of the work and making it a sonata in one movement based on uninterrupted metamorphosis of basic material. Lacking neither powerhouse virtuosity nor lyrical touch Mr. Denk proved himself worthy of the clamorous applause and prolonged shouts of bravo when he had finished.