I’ve been to two chamber music concerts this year, both of them excellent. The first was last September, with the Shanghai Quartet. They played fascinating, difficult, and very compelling pieces by Penderecki and Yi-Wen Jiang. They have an incredibly balanced tone — very unified, and highly expressive. But it was their performance of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” that stole the show. I recently purchased a recording of the Emerson Quartet playing the piece, and blasted it while home alone yesterday afternoon. Schubert is, as the cognoscenti all say, friggin’ awesome, and that piece just rocks. An added plus: the Shaghai’s cello player, Nicholas Tzavaras, looked a lot like Schubert, and I had the chance to chat with him over wine and snacks afterwards. Very interesting guy.
Last night we heard the Claremont Trio, with guest clarinetist Jonathan Cohler. They played Beethoven and Mendelssohn, and did well by each, though I usually find Mendelssohn’s music sort of muddled: it’s like Brahms, but without the emotional purity, and not complicated in a way that speaks to me. In their second half they played Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” — a strange, mystical work that maintains a very high tension over a long time, and is hugely unpredictable. It left me in a sort of welcomed daze. Messiaen wrote the work while a POW in a German camp during WW2, and performed it with a couple of imprisoned fellow musicians in a bitter January, 1941. No word on how the fellow prisoners felt about it. Probably not a Johnny Cash/Folsom Prison sort of deal.
And a recent purchase: a boogie-woogie style version of Khatchatourian’s “Russian Sabre Dance” on a 78 — soon to be featured in an upcoming video, to be sure.
I am trying to go back to Mendelssohn to understand his music. I am finding that his most popular pieces (Scottish Symphony, Midsummer Night’s Dream) are less interesting to the ear than some of his other pieces. Mendelssohn was truely a child with exceptional talents. (Mozart was mercilessly drilled into being a child protege for his father.) So sometimes Mendelssohn shows his brilliance in musical theory but with too much romantic flair perhaps for some. We all justly praise Mendelssohn for bringing Bach out of his relative obscurity. Perhaps we would have lost Bach’s “Passion of St. Matthew” if Mendelssohn had not arranged and conducted its revival when he was 20 years old. One of his teachers had used Bach fugues to teach Mendelssohn older composition techniques. Mendelssohn composed some very nice pieces in the style of Bach. I do enjoy these … I have the CD at home otherwise I would list them here.
Schubert on the other hand learned music by osmosis of living in a household of music. He lived on the inside of melody and harmony. His “Ellens Gesang” lives a million lives as “Ave Maria”. I love Schubert’s String quartetts and Piano Quintets because of their complicated harmonies. The harmonies seem experimental within his classical milieu.