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String Sextet
String Sextet op.178

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brennan Sweet
Brennan Sweet

 

Concert review - Hillside

Hillside, New Jersey, USA: Thursday 6 October 2011

A Raff, Draeseke and Brahms Concert in memory of Alan Krueck at the Enlow Hall, Kean University in Hillside, New Jersey.

The Program:
Raff: Variations and Finale from the String Sextet op.178
Draeseke: Clarinet Sonata op.38
Brahms: String Sextet no.2 op.36

The performers:
Brennan Sweet and Victoria Stewart, violins; Maurycy Banaszek and Joanna Frankel, violas; Susannah Chapman, cello, Anthony Scelba, bass. Romie De-Guise Langlois clarinet, Gabriela Martinez, piano.

It was wonderful to have an opportunity to hear Raff and Brahms on the same program, in works that used the same instrumentation. We all know that at the time of Raff's death the two composers were considered pretty much equals, and subject to frequent comparison; but by the time of Brahms' death seventeen years later, Raff's name was quickly receding from concert programs. Could the juxtaposition of two works like this help one understand the fall from grace of the older composer? Or would it help fuel the fire of those who believe that the collapse of Raff's reputation was unjustified?

In the moment, however, it was hard to actually compare the two composers, for the Raff was obviously a less intentionally serious work. However, it did make me think about the fact that comparison of Raff and Brahms was unfair at any level, for they proceeded from such different perspectives. Both composers were interested in earlier music, for example, but Brahms never imitated the forms of Baroque music the way Raff did in so many of his Suites; he rather tried to integrate his study of older music into his serious compositions, while Raff's Suites represent a kind of mid-way point between serious and light music, which even in his Serenades, does not seem to have been a niche that Brahms chose to occupy. In terms of lighter music, Brahms was a master of the genre in his Hungarian Dances and Liebeslieder Waltzes, essentially outdoing the light music composers at their own game. Raff, for his part, never competed with Johann Strauss,  but wrote much occasional music, and excelled at the smaller Concertante type works that Brahms did not write.  Even their Symphonies and  large  Concertos differed in intent and structure, Raff often using the older idea of a lighter movement for the Finale, whereas Brahms only tried such an idea once-admittedly, to wonderful effect, in his Second Piano Concerto. (for his part, Raff's Piano Concerto ends with a dazzling, climactic, Finale that would be a sure fire winner in any concert hall, and several of his Symphonies do work successfully along these lines as well)

So the two composers proceeded from different premises and tried to do different things. Thinking about that point does give us insight into at least one reason for the fall of Raff's reputation; changing fashions in music programming made it hard to integrate some of his most accessible music into lighter concert programs, whereas the Hungarian Dances and Liebeslieder Waltzes became many concert goers' introduction to the work of Brahms.

The Concert Artist Program is a remarkable one that brings outstanding and performers onto the Kean Conservatory of Music studio faculty. These renowned artists have created a professional chamber music society that offers an extensive and very interesting concert series every year. With such performers,  it is no surprise that they so ably conquered  the considerable technical difficulties of the Raff. The demands on the first violin were especially taxing, and Brennan Sweet played these long spun melodic lines with grace and aplomb. I wish that they would have more than this single opportunity to play the work, as I am sure that with repeated performances such superb performers could find even more in the music. This was clear from a comparison with the richly detailed Brahms, which four of the six players had played together in just a few months before. Again, one unfortunate thing about a fine composer like Raff who has languished in obscurity is that there are far fewer opportunities to play the pieces and so players never get the chance to develop the interpretative richness that comes with repeated performances. That said, to hear artists of this caliber performing  Raff, in the aesthetically beautiful and acoustically delightful Enlow Recital Hall,  was not only a treat but a privilege, and it says a great deal about the value and integrity of this concert series -and of the artists involved- that they are willing to take the time and energy to master new and taxing repertoire that deserves to be heard, but has been hitherto neglected.

I also would have enjoyed hearing the entire work, although I am truly grateful for what they did give us. The Variations are a rather conventional set of variations, kept alive by imaginative virtuoso concertante-like lines and Raff's refined melodic imagination. It did harken back in some ways to the more simplistic Theme and Variation model of the earlier 19th century (kept alive in Raff's day by virtuoso soloists writing material to show off their own techniques), but within that model, it is a well crafted and satisfying example of the type.

The Finale was a rousing and exciting romp, and it was terrific to see the performers enjoying its virtuosity and sweep. Unlike the Variations, which seemed to have gone on a bit, the Finale is a perfectly paced work that is exactly the right length to make its impact.

Although different in intent than the Brahms, I think it makes a perfect foil for it, and I would hope that other performances of the Brahms would consider doing the Raff on the first half of the program. We must note that both the Raff and the Brahms were played here in arrangements by Anthony Scelba, with the second cello part now played by the bass. From a marketing standpoint, this may well do the Raff some good, as I suspect that other bass players will be  inspired by this version to initiate  other performances of  the sextet.  Incidentally, both the Brahms and the Raff are  published by Editions Silvertrust, who have a great catalogue, including a large selection of fine neglected  chamber works. Many of these  pieces are available  in Dr. Scelba's  bass arranged versions.

The addition of the bass to the texture is fascinating. I was more conscious of it in the Brahms than the Raff - probably because I know the piece better - but in both cases I felt that, if anything the difference in sound quality between the cello and the bass clarifies and better defines the low part. Also, there are times where the ability of the bass to go below low C allows the proper shape of the bass part to be realized. There are also times where, for reasons of effect (such as in the Scherzo of the Brahms)  the availability of the low register was richly welcome for its own sake.  For the most part, the bass line is written in the same octave as the original cello, which is a wise choice musically (although it makes the part much more difficult!).

Although it is somewhat outside of the intention of this review, I cannot finish without mentioning the Draeseke  Clarinet Sonata. Discovering a composer like Draeseke gives texture to our understanding of Strauss, Pfitzner and Schmidt. At the beginning of the slow movement, there is a beautifully unexpected Db major Chord in the midst of a theme in Eb major. When it came up-it sounds like it is about twelve bars in-it completely took me by delighted surprise. It is precisely the type of thing that Strauss (post Rosenkavalier) or Schmidt would do to create a new twist on traditional harmony. Draeseke seemed to anticipate the direction taken by the more conservative element of early twentieth century German music, creating, for me at least, a link between the worlds of Schumann and Pfitzner. The Sonata itself was, at the time of composition, a very innovative work, as no one at that point at written so substantial a work for Clarinet and Piano. Given the relatively small repertoire of this kind, I am surprised it has not become part of the regular repertoire of the instrument, the way the Reinecke Flute Sonata has. Draeseke is a similar composer to Reinecke, a kind of Liszt to Reinecke's Brahms-which is to  say he is a more surprising and unusual figure. Again, hearing this performed by artists of the caliber of Gabriela Martinez and Romie de Guise Langlois was very exciting, and I can only hope they have the chance to do the work again. I know I would love to hear it in concert more than once.

All in all, a remarkable evening of great music. It is a pity that Alan Krueck was not alive to hear this concert. I could easily imagine him  beaming at the realization of the music of two of his favorite composers, who he championed with the critical and serious consideration that they deserve.

Warren Cohen

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