New York, USA: Monday 25 September 2006
The Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players have established a solid reputation for committed and high quality performances of unusual repertoire, garnering an appreciative and loyal audience for their regular series of concerts in New York’s historic Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church, which adjoins the very much grander venue of the Lincoln Center. They also have a good track record of performing works by Raff. The String Sextet was given a couple of years ago and the Piano Quintet received an inspiring performance in May of this year.
Concert organiser Mei Ying is well aware of the enthusiasm with which her audiences have been receiving Raff’s music, and was rewarded by two more packed houses for this pair of afternoon and evening concerts. It was, she explained in her introduction, a programme of music by relatively unknown composers (Kuhlau and Raff) and juvenilia by well known ones (Beethoven and Mendelssohn). What a pleasure it was to attend a concert where such an announcement is greeted with enthusiasm, rather than dismay!
In the charming opening Allegro moderato of Kuhlau’s Grand Trio in G op.119, pianist Steven Beck provided imperturbable and precise support for the mellifluous flute of Barry Crawford and Julie Albers’ more dramatic cello part. The Adagio patetico which followed was even more melodious and perhaps a little deeper musically, but any pretensions to profundity were swept away by the “rum-ti-tum” Rondo closing movement, which was driven onwards by Beck’s jaunty playing. An appropriately enjoyable piece to begin with, but hardly a great discovery.
The work which followed boasted an intriguing heritage. It was an arrangement for clarinet and string quartet of Mendelssohn’s early D minor Violin Concerto, by his friend the famed clarinet virtuoso Heinrich Baermann. Because parts for this work could not be located, the clarinettist Vadim Lando had transcribed them from a recording. A labour of love, indeed. His smooth, warm tone and relaxed virtuosity were utterly appropriate to this astonishingly mature work for a 13 year old.
Perhaps the afternoon performance would have benefited from more contrasting bite in the opening Allegro from the quartet, led by violinist Stefan Malenkovich, but things were tighter in the evening. The two succeeding movements saw more displays of mellow virtuosity from Lando, although at the end of the central Andante the textures and tempo got a bit syrupy. Baermann’s over heavy reliance on unison writing for the strings was ear-wearying at times, but overall the work deserved its solid and persuasive performance which ended in some stunning playing from Lando in the finale. He thoroughly deserved the tumultuous applause he received.
The second half began with Beethoven’s Piano Quartet in D WoO.36 no.2 of 1785, and how instructive it was to contrast this lively and imaginative work with the Mendelsssohn/Baermann of 40 years later. The textures were transparent and the harmonic language much more varied and adventurous. Once again, Beck’s piano playing was precise to the point of punctiliousness, and the edgy delivery of the string trio of Malenkovich, Albers and violist Eric Nowlin gave the work a welcome piquancy. An attractively soulful central Andante gave way to a final Rondo which benefited greatly from Malenkovich’s muscular violin reading. A winning performance all round.
Raff’s Octet in C op.176 was written in 1873, the year in which he produced some of his most finely crafted works: the String Sextet, the Maria Stuart song cycle and the Lenore Symphony. Despite the tonal limitations imposed by it being written for four violins and pairs of cellos and violas, it’s a full bloodedly romantic piece, in telling contrast to the works which proceeded it in the concert. From the very start, the reading it received was full blooded too, enhanced by the fact that all bar the cellists played standing, lending a physicality and directness to the performance.
The Allegro first movement was taken at a cracking, but not inappropriate, pace under the strong and secure lead of Malenkovich. He in particular communicated the vigour and passion of this fine movement, but the communication amongst all the players was impeccable, aided by Raff’s even handed distribution of interest between them. Few performances I can recall better communicated the visceral excitement of a Raff opening movement.
The brief Allegro molto which followed perhaps suffered initially from the brisk tempo of its predecessor, but the trap of descending into Mendelssohnian faerie was avoided and the two lyrical episodes were satisfyingly melodic without being coy. The return of the opening material was a thrilling moment. Perhaps the weakest movement of the work is the Andante slow movement, which can seem episodic and lacking the big heartfelt melody which Raff often brought to his slow movements. Here, though, it was beautifully paced and particular mention must be made of the sensitive interplay between the four violins sharing succeeding portions of the same phrase.
The short fizzing finale, Vivace, is one of Raff’s showstoppers and here it was a blast. The audiences of both performances were visibly on the edge of their seats, ready to leap to their feet at the end of each exciting, totally committed and dazzlingly articulated performance. The applause at the end of the evening performance was so appreciative that Malenkovich led his team in a reprise of the finale, taken at an even more dizzying pace than before.
It is invidious to single out individual contributions in these near perfect readings, which combined the best aspects of teamwork and individuality, but special mention must be made of Malenkovich's fiery and passionate first violin. From talking to the players, it is clear that they had enjoyed making Raff’s acquaintance and shared seasoned Raffianers’ bemusement at the modern neglect of his music. Their commitment shone through these performances.The efforts of Mei Ying and her talented team of musicians have now developed an appreciative audience in New York for the music of the 19th. century’s forgotten composers, and for Raff in particular. It can only be hoped that this achievement will result in more Raff performances of such quality in the years to come.