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Five For Bruckner

Few things are more gratifying than a little chamber music on a Sunday afternoon. And for all of us who can’t put a little musical soiree on ourselves, the Kennedy Center Chamber Players’ concert series is a great way to spend such an hour or two. The audience in the nearly sold out Terrace Theater must have thought so, too – especially after being treated to Mozart’s Flute Quartet in D Major (K.285), Ravel’s Suite for Violin and Cello and, especially appreciated, Bruckner’s rarely heard String Quintet in F Major.

Kennedy Center Chamber PlayersThe 1777 Flute Quartet of Mozart’s (Toshiko Kohno, flute – Nurit Bar-Josef, violin – Daniel Foster, viola – David Hardy, cello) was dashed off with all the requisite charm, flair, and skill: a short and sweet aperitif before the Ravel Sonata for Violin and Cello. Listening to that duo reminds that Ravel was a far more modern composer than we are all-too often inclined to think of him as. In the then 47 year old composer’s 1922 sonata, the ear can pick up hints of Bartók (or more likely: Kodaly) and the second Viennese School. Even the pizzicato-saturated second movement, where parallels to his string quartet come to mind, is far more abrasive than the jocular mood of the latter work. The lyricism of the third movement is the most obvious pointer to the work’s origins of being a memorial to the deceased Claude Debussy – but quickly tumbles into inspired, hectic dissonance before reemerging with serenity. Ms. Bar-Josef’s and Mr. Hardy’s skilled performance should have found a few new fans for this, perhaps somewhat ‘difficult’, work. The lively and puckish last movement (Vif, avec entrain) may have had its part to that end, too.

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A.Bruckner, Quintet, Quartet,
Leipzig String Quartet

Bruckner’s only notable piece of chamber music – if you dismiss a very early quartet – suffers neglect mostly because he is known only as a symphonist and because those symphonies offer precious little that might hint at music suitable for chamber music. That the Quintet lasts some 45 minutes probably does not help, either.

Hearing it again, and live for the first time, made me appreciate it anew. Of course I cannot deny a positive bias towards all things Bruckner, but the surprising lightness amid the chromatic music of the first movement was immediately captivating. In a slightly dismissive mood I once thought it fitting (or witty) to describe it as “clunky”. The phrase did not survive editing, which is good. Because the Quintet may be many things (grave, unorthodox, earthy, dense), but it is most certainly not clunky. While there are many distinctly Brucknerian elements (the traveling bass plucked on the cello here and there for example), it is infused with a serene charm perfectly befitting a chamber work. Why various critics and commentators have, especially in the third movement Adagio, pointed to the late Beethoven quartets becomes very obvious.

The Scherzo, which Bruckner had planned to replace with an Intermezzo composed for the purpose, has moments that are shockingly tip-toed; an image as hard to reconcile as any with our idea of Bruckner. What really distinguishes this music from the symphonies, however, is the sense of development that the latter have, but the Quintet does not. The musical ‘blocks’ that Bruckner welds together in his protracted symphonies end up making for a compelling progression of the music while there is much less sense of why the music progresses in the chamber piece. The dramatic arc is rather flat and while it would be an exaggeration to say that you might as well start listening at any given point of the Quintet, a Finnegan’s Wake-like association came to my mind, all the same.

Come the Adagio, though, which alone was worth attending the concert, and any remaining doubt is forgotten. There is no point in paraphrasing the writings of others about it: suffice it to say that as the heart of the Quintet, the five players (Jane Bower Stewart, violin, and Abigail Evans, viola, supported Bar-Josef, Foster, and Hardy) took to it with dedication and conviction that suggested a much greater care for, and connection with it than could have been possible had they only considered the Bruckner as a novelty program filler for which the only the notes would have to be gotten right and the work over and done with. The chromatic twists of the Finale: Lebhaft bewegt – Langsamer offered surprising contrast to the preceding Andante. The precision in intonation and cohesion necessary to make these passages easily understood was largely achieved by the players.

The next performance of the Kennedy Center Chamber Players will take place on December 17th, at 2PM. The Program consists of the Beethoven Trio No. 4 in B-flat major for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano, Op. 11 ("Gassenhauer"), Crumb's "A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979", and the Brahms Clarinet Quintet.

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