Summer Solstice Chamber Music Festival final concert
Charles Loeffler: Two Rhapsodies for Oboe, Viola, and Piano (‘L’Étang’ and ‘La Cornmuse’)
Brahms: Sonata in F Minor, Op. 120, No. 1, for viola and piano
Paul Coletti: ‘From My Heart’ from Three Pieces for Viola and Piano
Dvořák: Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 81
Juan-Miguel Hernandez, viola
Patricia Tao, piano
Lidia Khaner, oboe
Robert Uchida, violin
Ewald Cheung, violin
Rafael Hoekman, cello
Knox Evangelical Free Church
Friday, June 22nd, 2018
The Summer Solstice Chamber Music Festival, put on by the Edmonton Chamber Music Society, closed on Friday, June 22nd, with a concert given by mainly Edmonton-based musicians that entirely banished the disappointments of the Festival’s headliners, the St. Lawrence String Quartet.
Patricia Tao, Artistic Director of the Festival, had gathered together some of Edmonton’s finest musicians, ESO’s Principal Oboist, Lidia Khaner, the orchestra’s Concert Master, Robert Uchida, and Principal Cellist Rafael Hoekman – if nothing else, the concert was a reminder of how accomplished these three are. She added the ESO’s latest addition to the first violins, the young Ewald Cheung, who has just returned to his home city of Edmonton. Then she matched them with the Canadian violist, now living and teaching in London, U.K., Juan-Miguel Hernandez, with whom Tao had played with when he was violist with the Fine Arts Quartet (review here). Finally, she herself appeared as pianist.
The concert opened with exactly the kind of rarity that should be heard in a festival: two Rhapsodies by the American late-Romantic/Symbolist composer Charles Loeffler (1861-1935) for the unusual combination of oboe, viola, and piano. They were written in 1901, and are reworkings of two songs he had composed in 1898 to poems by the French poet Maurice Rollinat, a follower of Baudelaire (whom Loeffler also set). Thus the trio versions have an underlying programmatic content, though they stand perfectly well without knowledge of those programs.
The poems themselves are mysterious: the first, ‘L’Étang’ (‘The Pond’), is descriptive and sinister – thunder clouds over the pond, spectral figures, even the reflection of the moon as a death’s head. The second, ‘La Cornmuse’, describes the screeching of the bagpipes – the bagpiper is dead – and the poem ends, “I hear his bagpipes moaning, as before” (French texts at the end of this review). In this trio version, though, Loeffler’s evocation is pretty tame compared to the original poetry, certainly rhapsodic, and reminding me less of such Symbolist nightmares than musical visions that parallel the Hudson River landscapists (as in the Thomas Cole painting at the beginning of this review).
The first Rhapsody showed how effective the pairing of the oboe and viola is, especially when Loeffler opens with piano writing that starts in the same range as the two other instruments, before launching off into a more rhapsodic right hand. The whole thing builds up to a grand climax, rhapsodic piano and all, and then goes to an almost jaunty, jovial singing passage, before a lovely, quiet, crepuscular close following an uplifting – in all senses – oboe line.
The second is more influenced by the impressionists (initially at least), slower and sadder, the bagpipes (definitely more Northumbrian than Scottish) emerging from the music in the second half; again the close is quiet. These are rich, flowing tone-poems, here winningly played, and enhanced in particular by Hernandez’s equally rich viola tone.
The idea of reworking earlier music continued with the Brahms. The Sonata in F minor, Op.120 No.1 is perhaps better known as the Clarinet Sonata Op.120, No.1, which Brahms wrote in 1894 for the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld. Brahms turned the two sonatas that formed Op.120 into viola sonatas a little later, and the printed score states ‘for Clarinet (or Viola) and Piano’ with a separate solo voila part that reflects the small adjustments Brahms made for the different instrument.
Inevitably, there are moments when one can sense that the music would work a little better on the clarinet – as in the Allegretto grazioso third movement – but to counter this there are passages where it would be difficult for a clarinet to summon the insistent energy available to the viola, as in the first movement. It also helps to have the kind of opulent viola tone that is Hernandez’s hallmark.
Paul Coletti’s From My Heart benefits from being written by a composer who is himself a considerable violist, and was one of Hernandez’s teachers (you can hear the two play together here). The first of Three Pieces for viola and piano, it is a tribute to the composer’s late father, and uses snippets of his father’s favourite music as the motivitic material. The result is a kind of jazzy and bluesy salon piece with a serious purpose. Hernandez played it with obvious affection, as he does in a 2009 performance that you can hear on YouTube – but how much fuller and richer is his playing nine years later!
The concert and the Festival closed with a performance of Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 81. I admit to an immediate bias – it is one of my favourite works, with a faultless structure and an almost perfect balance between the movements, affecting in its colours and sentiments, with inspiration dipping – but just by a little – only in the final movement. It’s not a work that plumbs the depths of the human condition: rather it is one that says a lot about the magic of the nature of music, about the natural world that music inhabits. Indeed, like so much Czech music, it is imbued with a sense of nature, and is perhaps a work for those who love landscape painting – and as such made a most fitting book-end to the Loeffler with which the concert had started.
It was also an inspired performance, passionate, with rich string colours and a sense of homogeneity that, if not always faultless, was remarkable given that this was an ad-hoc group. The first movement was a totally convincing interpretation, one of the best I have heard, with lovely cello playing form Hoekman in the opening, and purity of tone from Uchida. The players had clearly decided to emphasize the contrasts between the weightier moments – playing with considerable drive, bite, attack, and energy – and the song-like moments of more repose. This juxtaposition was accentuated far more than is usual in performances of this work, but the music really responds to such an approach, and it made me rethink the movement.
If Tao could perhaps have afforded a little more expressiveness in the second movement (she occasionally does not allow her piano playing to take the emotional lead when it usefully could to shape a movement), she more than made up for it in her expressive playing in the Scherzo. Particularly beguiling was the quintet’s playing in the tranquillo ruminative sections just before the close of the last movement, to end a performance that showed all the virtues of fine chamber music-making, and was a splendid way to finish the Festival. It made one wish that Tao could reform this group for another year’s Summer Solstice.
Plein de très vieux poissons frappés de cécité,
L’étang, sous un ciel bas roulant de sourds tonnerres,
Étale entre ses joncs plusieurs fois centenaires
La clapotante horreur de son opacité.
Là-bas, des farfadets servent de luminaires
À plus d’un marais noir, sinistre et redouté ;
Mais lui ne se révèle en ce lieu déserté
Que par ses bruits affreux de crapauds poitrinaires.
Or, la lune qui point tout juste en ce moment,
Semble s’y regarder si fantastiquement,
Que l’on dirait, à voir sa spectrale figure,
Son nez plat et le vague étrange de ses dents,
Une tête de mort éclairée en dedans
Qui viendrait se mirer dans une glace obscure.
Sa cornemuse dans les bois
Geignait comme le vent qui brame
Et jamais le cerf aux abois,
Jamais le saule ni la rame,
N’ont pleuré comme cette voix.
Ces sons de flûte et de hautbois
Semblaient râlés par une femme.
Oh ! près du carrefour des croix,
Sa cornemuse !
Il est mort. Mais, sous les cieux froids,
Aussitôt que la nuit se trame,
Toujours, tout au fond de mon âme,
Là, dans le coin des vieux effrois,
J’entends gémir, comme autrefois,