Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Interludes with Beverly Hills National Auditions Winners

The Los Angeles Ensemble: l-r Bingxia Lu, Sung Chang, Joanna Lee, Tanner Menees.


The Los Angeles Ensemble, “The Interludes”, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

Sung Chang and Esther Lee.
This year’s first “Interludes” program—exceptionally packed with music for this series—pulled together winners in the 2018-19 Beverly Hills National Auditions categories for piano quartet, piano duo, and piano solo. In addition it was somewhat of a family affair. First on were the husband-and-wife team of Sung Chang and Esther Lee playing Bach and Poulenc, then Mr. Chang tout seul in Chopin and Kreisler; finally he was joined by colleagues of The Los Angeles Ensemble, including Ms. Lee’s sister Joanna, in Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet.

The “three popular pieces” of J. S. Bach could hardly have been more so—“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”, “Sheep May Safely Graze”, and “Sleepers Awake”—but I confess to finding, on this occasion at least, the arrangements by Leonard Duck for piano four hands to be (literally) a little heavy-handed, despite the best efforts of the two players. And being a dyed-in-the-wool old purist I guess that, if push came to shove, I would always prefer to hear them in their original cantata contexts (BWV 147, BWV 208, and BWV 140 respectively).

The youthful Francis Poulenc.
In contrast to the (to my ears) rather soupy mellifluousness of the Bach arrangements, the cleansing effect of Poulenc’s alternately astringent and amiable six-minute Sonata for Piano 4 Hands FP8, composed in 1918 and shot through with Stravinskian influence, was vividly conveyed by the duo, who brought propulsive energy and steel fingers to the outer movements and equally appropriate clarity and simplicity to the Rustique central slow movement, as naïf as the then 19-year-old composer could have desired.

More contrast came with Fritz Kreisler’s Liebesleid (Love's Sorrow), where Mr. Chang held back on overt sentimentality to give a performance that made neither too much nor too little of this bitter-sweet salon morsel. He then unleashed his full firepower for Chopin’s Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20 B65. So familiar for its use to label movements of relatively simple design and uncomplicated emotion, even light relief, in countless multi-movement works from solo sonatas to symphonies, this title of “scherzo” entirely belies the work’s scale, complexity, and darkness of mood.

Its Presto con fuoco opening is one of the most oppressive and catastrophic of any of Chopin’s works, and Mr. Chang hurled himself into it with breathtaking vehemence, with something of an “abandon hope all ye who enter here” quality. So, when the central Molto più lento arrived, something like Tchaikovsky’s Dante-inspired Francesca da Rimini came to mind, with the sense of this “trio” section of the Scherzo being an interlude of lost happiness, given an improvisatory tenderness by Mr. Chang. 

Schubert, drawn by Josef Kupelwieser
 in 1821, two years after the
composition of the “Trout” Quintet.

Finally, the “Trout”. Though Schubert’s Quintet in A major for Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello, and Double-bass D.667 was not the first work to combine these particular instruments, it remains the only piece for that line-up that's held a place in the repertory, unlike the many examples of “piano quintet” for the more usual combination of piano, two violins, viola, and ‘cello. 

Schubert seemingly compensates for any treble thinness in the texture, due to the inclusion of only one violin, by placing much of the piano writing above the treble stave—in fact right from its opening Allegro vivace flourishes. Mr. Chang’s pianistic athleticism duly led his colleagues through a vibrantly alive performance of the work, which had been played locally as recently as February last year, by “USC Stars of Tomorrow” in the Rolling Hills United Methodist Church’s “Second Sundays at Two” series (reviewed here, with more background on the piece). 

Nicholas Arredondo.
The first movement (exposition repeat intact) was appropriately fleet, with double-bassist Nicholas Arredondo making the most of those passages where that instrument underpins the work’s wide timbral range. The Andante was an easy-going stroll, its mood of gemütlichkeit to be bracingly blow away by the Presto third movement, whose Trio section in turn was introduced with exceptionally Romantic spaciousness by the violin and viola of Joanna Lee and Tanner Menees. 

Then of course came the titular set of variations on that tune. In keeping with the overall scale of the piece, Schubert only has five, but all are quite spacious and though sharply differentiated, do not stray far from their origin (definitely not one of those variation sets where you rapidly come to feel that the melody has been mislaid somewhere!). The standout for me was Variation III, led by ‘cellist Bingxia Lu to soulful and somber effect. 

As is almost always the case with this work, The Los Angeles Ensemble did not observe the main marked repeat in the Finale, which really was no loss as even without it the movement contains a good deal of literal repetition. As it was, they kept it bounding exuberantly to the end, a performance that fully justified their win in the Beverly Hills National Auditions. Another time it might be nice to hear them in Hummel’s arrangement of his Septet for these same forces, said to have been one inspiration for the creation of the "Trout." 


“The Interludes”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 3.00pm, Saturday, January 19, 2019.
Photos: The Los Angeles Ensemble: artists’ website; Poulenc: Courtesy Encyclopedia Britannica; Sung Chang and Esther Lee: Courtesy Classics Alive Artists; Kreisler: Courtesy ClassicalMPR; Schubert: Wikimedia Commons.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.