New York, USA: Monday 22 September 2008
New York's Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players were founded in 2002 and over the years their annual series of 40 concerts have established an enviable reputation; the prospect of hearing unusual repertoire performed by committed and very capable performers has built up a loyal and appreciative audience. In 2006 they featured Raff's Piano Quintet (concert review) and the Octet (concert review), both of which proved to be exciting and rewarding experiences. So I had high hopes for this concert which showcased another work which was very well known and loved in its time, the String Quartet No.7 Die Schöne Müllerin. I also hoped that this, my first hearing of the work in concert, would result in an epiphany, for despite it being probably the most played of Raff's quartets in his heyday, I have never warmed to it. It always seemed to be too easy on the ear, too bourgeois, too reminiscent of the salon for my taste.
As seems to be usual the Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church, next to the Julliard School and just around the corner from the Lincoln Center, hosted a full audience despite it being a gloriously sunny early Autumn afternoon. The first offering was Carl Stamitz's D major Quartet for flute, violin, horn and cello op.18 No.1 from 1773. The opening Allegro of this delightful work was very much a duet between Karl Kramer-Johansen's mellow horn and Sergey Ostrovsky's lively and rather dominant violin. In the stately Andante amoroso it was flautist Barry Crawford who partnered Ostrovsky and the pair were joined by Johansen in the finale, a sparkling Poco presto. All in all a delicate confection played with some humour, although it was a shame that it didn't give an opportunity for cellist Inbal Segev to do much more than provide harmonic grounding for the other players.
The second work in the first half was Mozart's "Kegelstadt" Trio K.498, introduced by clarinettist Vadim Lando. He was joined by Cynthia Phelphs, viola and pianist Inga Kapouler in a robust and persuasive performance of a work which has much more of a sense of ensemble than had Stamitz's. Lando possesses a deliciously buttery tone and this, allied to Phelps' warm sound, made for a gentle and melodious Andante first movement. The central Menuetto saw an agitated viola take centre stage calmly supported by the clarinet, before Kapouler took control in the closing moderately-paced Rondeaux to round out a beautifully integrated and satisfying performance.
A short Divertimento in F for piano trio from Haydn began the second part. Ostrovsky, Segev and Kapouler delivered another intelligent and co-operative performance. In the jolly Moderato the interplay of cello and violin commenting on the dominant piano line was especially pleasing. Although the trio couldn't do much to rescue Haydn's pedestrian writing in the Menuet, they delivered a dazzling Finale to round off another demonstration of fine ensemble work.
In his introduction at the start of the concert Karl Kramer-Johansen had singled out Raff's Die Schöne Müllerin Quartet for particular praise, calling it a "great work" and those whom I recognised from earlier Raff outings here were clearly eagerly anticipating it. Ostrovsky, Phelps and Segev were joined by Jupiter regular Lisa Shitoten playing second violin. The work tells a straightforward love story illustrated by the titles of its six movements: The youth, The mill, The miller maid, Anxiety, Declaration and At the wedding feast. The opening Allegretto began lyrically, the fine ensemble developing a sonorous, mellow sound with Ostrovsky's violin slightly more prominent than the rest of the instruments. It was all very lovely but not until near the close, however, was there much momentum evident. In consequence, Raff's portrait of the ardent young man lacked the vigour and passion one would expect and he came across as a rather wet specimin.
Much more successful was the Allegro second movement. Describing the whirling sails and grindstones of the mill, it was clearly just as much of a hit with this audience as it was in Raff's day. Not only was it taken at an appropriately furious pace, it was played with a commendable lightness and accuracy too. The portrait of the miller's daughter which follows, an Andante, quasi adagietto, is the centrepiece of the whole work and was, again, very nicely done. It was taken at a steady but not cloying pace; Raff's tempi indications for his slow movements are generally not that slow. Throughout, the dynamics were sensitively varied and there were some lovely textures, with Segev's cello playing in particular contributing to the intense lyricism of this movement. In telling contrast was the brief minor key fourth movement Allegro, the lovers' anxiety obvious from the edgy atmosphere which Shitoten and Ostrovsky in particular generated.
Less successful perhaps than the middle three movements were the final pair. The Andantino, quasi allegretto which illustrated the lad's declaration of love was certainly tender but there was also a coolness to the playing and this peculiar air of detached schmaltz made it all somehow lack sincerity. Once again though , as in so much of the work, Ostrovsky's first violin was to the fore to good effect. In the Vivace finale we were treated to a very jolly wedding celebration but, although there was plenty of pace, the unvarying tempo once again robbed it of momentum and the lasting impression, despite the speed, was of a low key occasion. It must not be forgotten that this work is explicitly a piece of programme music, Raff called it a Cyclic Tone-Poem, and whilst it might be argued that the interpretive decisions made by the players were perfectly valid in an abstract musical sense, they did rob the story of some of its impact, particularly in the outer movements. Less lyricism and more passion in the first movement and a gradual acceleration of the pace through the finale would have made all the difference.
It will by now be obvious that my Damascene revelation will have to wait for another day. Although to be fair the audience clearly enjoyed the work very much, I felt that this time the Jupiter Chamber Players had, at least in the three outer movements, played to its weaknesses. A less genteel, earthier approach would perhaps have revealed the strength in them that was demonstrated in the three central movements. That said, every player was on top form, their ensemble was impeccable and Raff's old crowd pleaser certainly seemed to please the crowd.