Music@Menlo "Preludes and Fugues" by Gary Lemco

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Music@Menlo "Preludes and Fugues" by Gary Lemco

Post by Lance » Wed Jul 31, 2013 11:54 pm

Vertical Raptures: Music@Menlo’s Preludes and Fugues
By Gary Lemco

BACH'S contrapuntal legacy has rarely been felt so immediately through the musical generations as it was presented for the July 27, 2013 Saturday night concert at The Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton, under the aegis “Through Bach,” which motivates the Music@Menlo concert series. Beginning with Bach preludes and fugues and ending with a richly textured Britten work, his Prelude and Fugue for Eighteen Strings, Op. 29 (1943), the traversal of the eight composers represented the richness and emotional rapture the polyphonic mode could provide musically creative imaginations that Bach had touched by his passions in counterpoint.

Gilles Vonsattel – known to some us via his excellent work at the 2009 Honans Festival – performed three Bach preludes and fugues from the WTC I (1722) to open formalities: E major, E minor, and G major. Certainly Vonsattel projects deep thought into his interpretations, and the aura he projects literally neutralized the audience compulsion to applaud, particularly after a mesmerizing Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue in E Minor, from Op. 87 that opened the concert’s second half. Vonsattel does play quickly, though; yet he manages to retain crisp articulation and a fluid, robust line.
The Danish String Quartet made its West Coast debut – Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violins; Asbjørn Nørgaard, viola; and Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, cello – greeted with a flurry worthy of Rock Stars, in Mozart’s 1788 Adagio and Fugue in C Minor, K. 546. This piece, by the way, remained Tchaikovsky’s favorite Mozart work and the quintessential mode of counterpoint he wished to emulate. The grueling opening note of the Adagio established the rigorously lachrymose character of the entire work, which in some seven minutes distills and number of Bach contrapuntal procedures. The gloomy Adagio has much in common both with Don Giovanni and the Masonic Funeral Music. Sjølin’s resonant cello led the fugue subject, an angular and often cruelly severe moment of intense personal expression, the passing dissonances as close to Schoenberg as Mozart’s evolving Classical style would permit.

The Danes stayed on stage, now to play the F Minor String Quartet of Joseph Haydn, his Op. 20, No. 5 (1774). Like the Mozart opus, Haydn chooses to depart dramatically away from the gallant niceties of the polite, aristocratic court. This sturm und drang sensibility infiltrated the first movement, in which violin Frederik Øland played a concertante part over the other instruments’ support. Each of the parts then began to assert its individuality, especially as the music modulates to A-flat major. Dialogues between the violinists became quite earnest, intimate as well as harmonically wayward. The F Minor Minuet movement, too, avoided poise and symmetrical comfort for a triple meter that had its unnerving elements. The trio section became quite romantic, a lovely song in F major. The ensuing Adagio, a kind of lullaby, had a theme not so far from the famous Siciliano from a Bach flute sonata that Wilhelm Kempff used to play so lovingly. The Fuge a due soggetti clearly wants to honor Bach, initiated by a fiery second violin in alternate whole and half notes, followed by the ardent viola of Mr. Nørgaard in more conventionally melodic terms. Though relatively brief, this movement compressed much of the “learned style” into an intense space that had the audience up in arms at the coda.

To conclude the first half of the concert, the Danish Quartet played the Capriccio in E Minor, Op. 81, No. 3 (1843) by Felix Mendelssohn. Marked by two dramatically opposite sections, Andante con moto and Allegro fugato, the piece demonstrates the kind of compression a natural contrapuntalist like Mendelssohn could achieve in six minutes, especially when the creative fires were lit. Published posthumously along with three other string quartet miniatures, the Capriccio can certainly stand alone as a tour de force for any string quartet with the precision and the deft legerdemain to bring it off, as did the Danes.

Gilles Vonsattel resumed center stage for two piano solos, shared by Shostakovich and Debussy. The opus 87 Prelude and Fugue in E Minor (1951) updates Bach, but in a vice dour, somber, and idiosyncratically expressive. At moments the somber character assumes a directness reminiscent of plainchant, a quality equally immediate in the attacca – not a single clap from the audience after the Shostakovich - Debussy prelude, “La fille aux cheveux de lin,” which never fails to evoke Jennifer Jones in the film Portrait of Jenny. Each of the Preludes, Book I (1910), including the perkily ironic Minstrels and the stentorian La cathedrale engloutie, enjoyed a ravishing wash of colors from Vonsattel, studied, deliberate, and often, in The Sunken Cathedral’s evocation of Ys and Ysolde, symphonic. We could well appreciate, if not Bach, the boulevardier influence Debussy would exert in Minstrels, a forecast of the jagged and acerbic accents in Poulenc and Gershwin. And sure enough, Vonsattel collaborated with violinist Ian Swensen in Gershwin’s 1926 Three Preludes in the transcriptions by Jascha Heifetz. The two jazzy – even boogie-woogie - outer preludes had their contrast in the eminently bluesy Second Prelude, with Swensen’s darkly moody elegy sung over Vonsattel’s crossed hands.

Finally, Benjamin Britten received some small homage for his own centennial in the Prelude and Fugue for 18 Strings. A highly sectionalized piece, the Adagio and Fugue often sounds like many a British string serenade, but with a mercurial vitality and learned character that distinguishes it from Elgar or Vaughan Williams. The double basses – Scott Pingen and Charles Chandler – had their day in the sun, playing first in octaves and later in agile stretti passages which asked their voices to crescendo. The textures and sound of the work, ranging from bitter-sweet elegy to puckish dances and even Wagnerian convulsion, savors the capacity of the various string groups to work in concert or in brilliant antiphons. Violinist Arnaud Sussman served a primus inter pares, with Jorja Fleezanis a nimble shadow. By having each voice present the fugue subject, Allegro energico, Britten could evoke the layering Bach and Ravel, or the angular, modal harmony of Bartok. Just when we think Britten is about to conclude he inserts another powerful series of motions, pizzicato and stretto, until the rush of the coda, when the fugal subject rules over all, and the audience could exhibit the full frenzy of its appreciation. ♫

Dr. Gary R. Lemco regularly contributes reviews to
Classical Music Guide. He resides in California.

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