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Musicians From Marlboro II - 2006

Carl Nielsen’s Woodwind Quintet, Schubert’s Shepherd on a Rock and three assorted songs, Elliot Carter’s Eight Etudes and a Fantasy, Beethoven’s Quintet in E-flat Major: a chamber music event’s program can’t look a lot better on paper than that. A bit of flair from the rare beauty, a little dose of sugar, a modern digestif from the master, and the rarely heard work of a mainstream composer, in that order, were presented by seven musicians from Marlboro at the Freer Gallery (the first of the three Marlboro Concerts took place in November, and the third, featuring Mozart, Schoenberg, and Schumann, will take place on May 9th).


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Nielsen, Hindemith, Barber, Works for Woodwind Quintet, Musicians from Marlboro (1991)
Nielsen’s quintet is in part so (relatively) well known, because it is one of the best in a genre that has really few good examples. Hindemith’s Kleine Kammermusik, Barber’s Summer Music, Six Bagatelles of Ligeti are among the few really outstanding examples. Add a few more modern examples (Schuller, Babbitt, Harbison), a ton of Reicha (which gets old after a while), transcriptions and works that need to be fortified (namely Beethoven and Schubert), and pickings become fairly slim after that. That is not to diminish the quality of Nielsen’s op. 43 (1922), which is a joyous ride in a slow machine. Woodwind players will tell you that it is excellently written for their instruments, but beyond mere craftsmanship it has also moments of great beauty or novelty. A proto-Stravinskian touch here, there the beautiful Bach-like hymn upon which the variations of the finale (Tema con variazioni) are based. A bassoon opens the work, the other instruments flutter to its aid. The second movement (Menuett) is a counterpoint-sodden story on a melody that shows beauty in principle, although I tend to find it the most tiring of the movements. The slow Praeludium: Adagio is a short run up to the finale. The five musicians (Rudy Vrbsky, oboe; Alexander Fiterstein, clarinet; Shinyee Na, bassoon; Paul S. LaFollette III, horn; Valérie Tessa Chermiset, flute) showed the work from its best side.

Not quite as convincing were the three Schubert songs that followed. Beautiful songs, for sure, and delivered with a beautiful voice, but that alone didn’t make for a good Lied performance. The pronunciation was both very good and awkward: the effort very audible and as a result highly unnatural, a relation to the text never really established. Speaking of unnatural: soprano Hyunah Yu might also do well to tone down the Erika Köth-like wobbly power-vibrato and sing songs (at least songs) more naturally, less affected, while adjusting the general impression of a tubular “O” in her singing by moving it closer to an open “A.” Ditto for the Shepherd on the Rock, where she presented two emotions: ‘transported bliss’ and ‘theatrical sad’ – all with the recital stock poses, including the classic hand-on-the-heart and left-hand extended shyly into nowhere just above the shoulder. It all looked like she would make an excellent Adele in an American production of Die Fledermaus; for songs I’d like to see a few more years of maturity. With the raw materials being in place, though, she’ll undoubtedly get to delight future audiences once interpretation becomes more sophisticated. Mr. Fiterstein on the clarinet did a marvelous job next to her; Gilbert Kalish, who had played with great support in the songs, was only a bit less genial in the Shepherd.

While I passed on the Beethoven due to fatigue, the Carter I would not have missed. And good thing I didn’t – this 1950 woodwind quartet (no horn), a compositional study, was intriguing and at many points surprisingly charming. Whether the single, if internally varied, chord that made for the second etude, the slow fifth etude, or the interpolated music of the eighth (Presto)… every bit had something to say and all were worth listening to. Even in relatively simple works like that, the difference in quality in modern or abstract music is surprisingly easy to discern – and to the extent I’m not overly influenced by the name “Carter” alone, I find him consistently a winner in a field of music that has plenty to offer that is often no more than a calculated mess of sound.