Monday, December 11, 2017

A bag more mixed than usual at the SBCMS

REVIEW: The Lyris String Quartet plays Brahms, Ravel, and Billy Childs

South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes

The Lyris Quartet.
Paying due attention to the vast range of existing chamber music repertoire over seasons of just seven programs means not a lot of room left for living composers, so welcome indeed was the name (new to me) of Billy Childs on the roster for the South Bay Chamber Music Society’s last concert before the holiday break, played by the Lyris Quartet (Alyssa Park, violin, Shalini Vijayan, violin, Luke Maurer, viola, and Timothy Loo, ‘cello). 

Billy Childs.
Mr. Loo briefly introduced this first item, Billy Childs’ “Unrequited”—String Quartet #3 in one movement, composed in 2015. This was one of the results of the Lyris Quartet’s invitation for composer responses to Janáček’s 1928 String Quartet No.2 “Intimate Letters”, in which the 74-year-old composer memorialized his decade-long obsessive infatuation with Kamila Stösslová, 37 years his junior. Fortunately, Mr. Childs was present to outline his approach (taken here from an online source):

“When the Lyris Quartet approached me to compose a piece for this project, I thought that it was a remarkable idea— to compose a sort of commentary on the story of Janáček’s Intimate Letters. The first thing — the only thing, really — that popped into my mind was the tragedy of unrequited love (hence the title, Unrequited). The first time I heard Janáček’s Intimate Letters performed live, the emotion of the piece jumped out at me: the wild shifts of tempo, the beautiful and plaintive melodies, the stark dynamic contrasts. 

Janáček and Kamila Stosslova.
“I wanted to illustrate my perspective on this strange relationship between Janáček and Kamila Stösslová, by telling the story of a man who goes through different phases of emotion, before finally coming to terms with the fact that his love for her is one-sided — it will never be returned the way he would like. I sought to compose Unrequited so that it moves, like the five stages of grief, through a variety of emotions — from romantic, pure love, through paranoid, obsessive, neurotic possessiveness, arriving finally at despondent acceptance.” 

The result was a single, 11-minute movement, the opening mood of which brought to mind the becalmed, dream-like music with which Bernard Herrmann clothes the tailing by Scottie (James Stewart) of Madeleine (Kim Novak) through the streets of San Francisco in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. But that was with a symphony orchestra, whilst this was a string quartet. In Unrequited Mr. Childs showed himself a real master of the medium, constantly shifting between solos accompanied by the other three instruments (the viola perhaps “first amongst equals” here), duets, fast contrapuntal passagework, pizzicati, tremolandi, and atmospheric high harmonics, and all in the service of the work’s overall musical and emotional progression, which ended in an absolute stasis that made me think not so much of “despondent acceptance” as terminal flatlining. 

Ravel in 1907, four years after
 completing his String Quartet.
It might have seemed ideal for the Lyris Quartet to precede this very impressive achievement with the Janáček quartet itself, but to do so would have deprived us of the exceptional performance of the Ravel String Quartet in F major M35 with which they concluded the first half of the concert.

It detracts nothing from their rapid and appropriately fluid account of the Allegro moderato – très doux first movement, or the husky and raptly enigmatic Très lent third, or the pervasive nervous edge of the Vif et agité finale, to say that the highlight was a quite fabulously alive and texturally transparent performance of the Assez vif – très rythmé second movement, its hallmark pizzicati bounding all over the aural landscape in perfect formation. 

Though a relatively early work, composed in 1903 at the age of 28, Ravel’s great quartet is one perfect answer to the charge that French composers could never rise successfully to the challenge of putting their own stamp on the Germanic four-movement sonata template, but curiously the Brahms string quartets – the quintessential embodiment of that form in the hands of one of its greatest masters – remain somewhat on the periphery both of the string quartet repertoire and Brahms’ own oeuvre. 

He is known to have wrestled as long with the string quartet form before he was satisfied with his results as he did with that of the symphony, but whereas the four Brahms symphonies are thoroughly familiar and constantly performed and recorded, his three string quartets remain little-known territory for many otherwise knowledgeable music-lovers. 

Brahms in 1873, the year he completed
 his two String Quartets Op.51.
The Lyris Quartet crowned their splendid recital by taking the challenge head-on, delivering a committed and vivid performance of the String Quartet No.2 in A minor, Op.51 No.2 that must have earned it new friends amongst the audience. However, to my ears the work still has an overarching and somewhat forbidding gruffness.

The first movement certainly conveys a magisterial structural command, in this performance made yet more so by the welcome inclusion of the long exposition repeat, but in the Andante moderato second movement – and despite the Lyris Quartet’s punctilious observation of the dolce marking that appears intermittently – the overall dour seriousness continued, whilst the Quasi Minuetto had a sense of something joylessly frenetic and anxious. The overall impression of a formidable work that is easy to admire but hard to love continued into the finale, where the performers gave no quarter in their underlining of its basic severity. 

Nonetheless, all kudos to the Lyris Quartet for avoiding programming an easy crowd-pleaser, and it was highly gratifying to see and hear the performance greeted with all the enthusiasm that it deserved. 


South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes, 3pm, Sunday, December 3, 2017.
Photos: Lyris Quartet: Courtesy Sequenza 21; Billy Childs: Raj Naik; Janáček and Kamila Stosslova: Courtesy CLASSICfM; Ravel: Pierre Petit; Brahms: K. K. Hof-Atelier Adèle.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

First Friday for Rachmaninoff and Beethoven


First Fridays at First!, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

Trio Céleste.
As pianist Kevin Kwan Loucks (one-third of Trio Céleste, along with violinist Iryna Krechkovsky and ‘cellist Ross Gasworth) noted in his brief spoken introduction, two youthful works comprised the December “First Fridays” lunchtime recital. Arguably, however, Rachmaninoff’s Trio élégiaque No.1 in G minor TNii/34 and Beethoven’s Piano Trio No.4 in B-flat major Op.11 occupy rather different positions in their composers’ respective outputs.

Though the Beethoven Trio, composed at age 26 in 1797, predates his long series of mature masterpieces, it comes close to half-way through his not particularly long lifespan and postdates some works that remain core repertoire today, including piano sonatas, piano trios, ‘cello sonatas, and even his first two piano concertos. Rachmaninoff’s Trio, by contrast, was written at only 19 years from his virtually exact statutory three-score-and-ten and – with the exception of the First Piano Concerto, completed six months before in mid-1891 but thoroughly revised in 1917 – is his earliest piece to be frequently performed today.

Rachmaninoff in 1892. 
So it’s all the more remarkable that the melodic arcs, harmonies, and cadences of the Trio élégiaque’s opening theme virtually shout from the rooftops that its composer is Rachmaninoff, a voice fully formed indeed. Close adherence to the unusual initial marking Lento lugubre can, however, turn its single movement into a quarter-hour dirge, but fortunately Trio Céleste kept things moving from the get-go.

Their vigorous performance, holding the angst quotient well under control but still managing to relish fully the rich melodic content, emphasized its strong quasi-sonata structure and left me thinking – not for the first time – that this Trio sounds far more like the first movement of a multi-movement work than a self-contained whole. 

I wonder whether an unconscious sense of this was responsible for the delayed and hesitant applause that greeted the performance, and then whether a subliminal desire not to be caught out again caused the sprinkle of clapping that followed the first movement of the Beethoven Trio. On the other hand, this could simply have been appreciation of the smiling fleetness with which Trio Céleste drove it, the absence of the longish exposition repeat giving even more the feel of an airborne jeu d’esprit

Beethoven in 1801: Portrait by Carl Traugott Riedel. 
Beethoven can sometimes sound as if he is simply having fun, and this is one of those works. It stands a little to one side in his sequence of piano trios between the large-scale first three that comprise Op.1 and the contrasting mature pair of Op.70, not only due to its lightness and brevity but also because its scoring is for clarinet or violin.

The wryly capricious Allegro con brio first movement gives way to a brief, ternary-form Adagio, based on a tender, lullaby-like melody. Trio Céleste were just a bit forthright for my taste in this movement, and at the end their concentration had to withstand the prolonged noise from a walkie-talkie that had inadvertently been left switched on!

Beethoven's sense of fun really bursts out in the finale. The work has the nickname “Gassenhauer” – translatable as “street song” or “pop hit” – and this refers to the theme from a then-popular stage farce by the now pretty much forgotten Joseph Weigl (1766-1846) that Beethoven uses for the impish set of nine variations that comprise his third and final movement.

This “Pria ch’io l’impegno” is the sort of earworm tune that gets you at one hearing, but Beethoven ensures that you’re thoroughly infected by the end, tossing it around the three instruments, swinging it theatrically from con fuoco, to Minore, to Maggiore, and back, and back again. Of course, he builds in plenty of technical challenges in the service of the fun, and Trio Céleste relished every minute of it – and so did the audience. The next time anyone bemoans to you that they find Beethoven “a bit heavy”, just play them the finale of his Fourth Piano Trio, and watch their face. 


“First Fridays at First!”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, December 1, 2017. Photos: Trio Céleste:; Beethoven: Wikimedia Commons; Rachmaninoff: Artcorusse.