Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Stars from USC’s Thornton School play César Franck


REVIEW

Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church
DAVID J BROWN

Undated photograph of César Franck, by Pierre Petit. 
In the March “Second Sundays” recital, a USC Thornton group comprising faculty members Glenn Dicterow (first violin), Bernadene Blaha (piano) and Karen Dreyfus (viola), plus top students Benjamin Lash (‘cello) and Mann-Wen Lo (violin), performed one of the most intensely dramatic masterpieces of late-Romantic French chamber music, César Franck’s Piano Quintet in F minor M.7, composed in 1878-79. 

Karen Dreyfuss and Glenn Dicterow. 
Across the work’s three large movements, together playing for approaching 40 minutes and interconnected by the recycling of themes in different contexts, Franck uses his ensemble not so much as a vehicle for the interplay of lines and textures as a powerhouse mini-orchestra. 

This begins at the very outset of the first movement’s Molto moderato quasi lento introduction, where the first violin drives an impassioned, stepwise-descending melodic line over richly sustained chords from his three string companions, juxtaposed with reflective but portentous undulations in the piano. Immediately it was clear that Mr. Dicterow and his colleagues had the full expressive breadth and weight of the work under their fingers, with phrasing that was as expansively generous as it was secure. 

Bernadene Blaha. 
In the later stages of the lengthy first movement, Franck progressively cranks up the tension texturally and harmonically, and the group (invidious to single out any one of them) matched and projected the intensity with playing that passed from the merely vehement to a positively volcanic urgency, but still giving full value to the movement’s long latter passage of enraptured withdrawal that comes before the renewed onset of tension, building through wave after wave of fff climaxes before the end dissipates in a kind of exhausted collapse. 

Whence came all this tumultuous passion? At least one biographer has suggested that it stemmed from Franck’s admiration, to put it no more strongly, for his pupil Augusta Holmès, and it is indeed easy to read into the work’s overall mood a powerful eroticism. Nonetheless, the central slow movement, marked Lento con molto sentimento, seems to add a sense of tragedy and mourning to the heady mix, the repeated triplets of its 12/8 measures having something of a weighty barcarolle quality, like the slow dip and plunge of the oars of a funerary boat in ancient times. 

Mann-Wen Lo.
Unlike the positive finales of many large-scale works otherwise ridden with conflict, that of Franck’s quintet brings no sunny uplift or resolution. A pianissimo buzzing from the second violin (for which Ms. Lo delivered the rising tremolando semi-tone scales with appropriately clamped-down intensity) leads to a renewal and extension of the tumult from the first two movements, with thematic reminders from them adding to the hothouse atmosphere. 

Though it’s possible to imagine slower tempi adding more of a sense of haunting recall in certain places, there was no denying the integration of this ensemble's overall conception, and the conclusion, cascading downwards on all five instruments and then sliced off with two emphatic quarter-note chords separated by whole-measure rests, generated resounding cheers and the standing ovation that Southern Californian audiences seem willing to give to everything they hear, but which on this occasion was, for once, justified. 

Benjamin Lash. 
After this, an encore seemed superfluous, but there was one – the scherzo from Dvořák's Piano Quintet No.2 in A minor, dispatched with suitable precision and nuance. It would be wonderful to hear the whole work from these players in due course, as well as (even more so for this Brit enthusiast for his native music) Elgar’s Piano Quintet in A minor, no less great a piece than those of the Belgian and Czech masters.

Oh, and while we’re thinking about Franck (but minus a pianist), how about his String Quartet in D major, yet more expansive and searching, and composed a decade after the Piano Quintet

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Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, 2pm, Sunday, March 11, 2017.
Photos: César Franck: Wikimedia Commons; Karen Dreyfuss and Glenn Dicterow: Courtesy Concord Chamber Music Society; Bernadene Blaha: Karen Knauer; Mann-Wen Lo: Courtesy Pascale Music Institute; Benjamin Lash: website.

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