EXCITING CHAMBER MUSIC FROM BRAZIL, FRANCE AND POLAND
Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Centre; Szymanowski Quartet; Mandelring Quartet with Katarzyna Mycka, marimba; February 7 and 21, March 11, 2012, Vancouver Playhouse.
The first 2012 concerts of the Friends of Chamber Music gave us an exciting feast of diversity: a concert featuring two marimba concertos, a full night of modern French wind music, and a return engagement of a scintillating string quartet named after and dedicated to the music of pioneering Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937). Each concert introduced at least one work that we have probably never heard before.
The marimba concert was an absolute delight. One might think of this instrument as a very large xylophone (see photo above). Often identified with jazz, popular music, and other Latino contexts, it has long been seen as a ‘classical’ percussion instrument too. In recent years, it has become the practice to use two mallets, rather than one, for each hand, allowing greater musical density and flexibility. Given the size and length of the instrument, the performer has to be really agile to bounce from the highest notes to the lowest. Renowned Katarzyna Mycka gave us a clinic on technique and the range of expression possible. Both works performed for us here have an extensive solo part (within a string quartet medium) and are entitled marimba ‘concertos’ for that reason. The most well-known was by Brazilian composer Ney Rosauro (1986), expressive and rhythmically-complex, though the lighter concerto composed by Emmanuel Sejourne in 2005 was interesting too. (We also got a genuine ‘tango’ encore.) One was consistently amazed by the degree of tonal precision, the rhythmic accuracy and the range of colours achieved, from the most dramatic attacks to the softest tremolo. Something like the feeling one gets when seeing a celebrated percussionist like Evelyn Glennie play a timpani concerto! Katarzyna Mycka’s collaborators, the accomplished Mandelring Quartet, were fully attentive in establishing a give and take with the soloist and delivering both quiet, languid passages and the more swinging rhythmic ones in an idiomatic way. A new and lovely experience for us, and the Mandelrings also contributed an engaging, fresh performance of Debussy’s Quartet in G minor on their own.
Who could fail to respond to the wit, energy, and sentiment of French wind music, and how long has it been since we have had such a concert? The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Centre gave us just that in this year’s visit, David Shifrin bringing with him a number of veterans alongside the young and promising pianist Alessio Bax. It was wonderful to hear Poulenc’s famous Sextet, Jacques Ibert’s Trois Pieces Breves and Jean Francaix’s Quintet all together, introduced by Maurice Emmanuel’s beguiling Sonata, Op. 11 that I had never heard before. The playing was certainly strong and attractive overall but perhaps a little light on charm.
Given what we have seen previously from the Szymanowski Quartet, the excellence of this year’s concert was hardly a surprise. This ensemble, formed in Warsaw in 1995, literally breathes life into music, combining a rare sensitivity and intellectual reach with a strong dramatic and rhythmic sense. As we saw in the opening of Karol Szymanowski’s Nocturne and Tarantella, their ability to play softly and inwardly is almost without equal. But their ability to spring out of such a mood into full rhythmic impetus is equally remarkable. I had never really thought about the emotional link between this short and distinctive piece and Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 2 but here the warm and full folk feelings, strong rhythmic attack, and the quiet intensity indeed suggested some common ground. A thoroughly enjoyable reading of a Prokofiev work not played that often. The highlight of this night was the performance of Beethoven’s second Rasumovsky Quartet, Op. 59, No. 2. This is a core ‘middle period’ quartet and typically is given a warmer melodic profile than any of the leaner and other-worldly late quartets. Not so here! Even from the opening, the degree of restraint and inward probing conjured up the complex feelings and melodic sparseness of the great Op. 131 quartet. The concentrated tensions of the slow movement truly took us to the sublime reaches of the Cavatina in Op. 132. And so on, a stream of endless beauty -- to a uniquely satisfying conclusion. How the young Szymanowski quartet could think all this out so carefully and bring such exceptional depth to this work – without a trace of contrivance – is simply something to wonder at. I have said it before: this is a quartet that must be watched with the greatest interest.
© Geoffrey Newman 2012