Saturday, September 28, 2019

Ives, Beethoven, Shostakovich open SBCMS 2019-2020

Shostakovich surrounded by fellow Soviet composers in the year he completed his
Third String Quartet.


Fiato String Quartet, South Bay Chamber Music Society, Los Angeles Harbor College

More than 50 years ago I bought Leopold Stokowski’s premiere recording of Charles Ives’ legendarily unperformable Symphony No. 4, and I bet I wasn’t the only person who, after the ear-battering tempest of the second movement, found the diatonic strains of the missionary hymn “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” that begin the third movement to be a homey refuge after the storm.

Ives' graduation photo
from Yale, 1898.
I didn’t know then, and I’d forgotten again until the Fiato String Quartet (Carrie Kennedy and Joel Pargman, violins; Aaron Oltmann, viola; Ryan Sweeney, cello) opened the first concert of the SBCMS’s new season with Ives’ String Quartet No. 1: From the Salvation Army, “A Revival Service” (c.1897-1900), that in the lengthy process of assembling the Fourth Symphony from around 1910 onwards, Ives reworked the quartet’s opening Andante con moto as the symphony’s slow movement, with a moderato tempo qualifier to add breadth.

Played very much con moto by the Fiato in the rich acoustic of LA Harbor College’s superb recital hall, that movement's fugal interweavings of the borrowed hymn-tune fragments engaged the ear immediately. In a brief introduction to the work, Ms Kennedy had noted Ives’ pioneering experimentation: melodic material culled from hymns and popular tunes, and often combined regardless of harmonic clashes to emulate his youthful hearing of different tunes from opposite sides of the home town square in Danbury, Connecticut, played by his bandleader father’s and other bands.

Carrie Kennedy (violin).
Ms. Kennedy identified the several hymns Ives uses in the First Quartet’s four movements, the remaining three of which after the opening fugue correspond approximately to the traditional scherzo/slow movement/fast finale. Not outstaying its welcome at around 22 minutes, and played with commitment, warmth, and spontaneity by the Fiato Quartet, the whole work was an ideal introduction to the composer, to judge by the enthusiastic reception.

With decades of heavyweight scholarship and the production of definitive editions, as well as frequent performances of at least some of his orchestral works under big-name conductors, Ives now seems enshrined as one of our great composers. Why, then, do I have a residual “emperor’s-new-clothes” niggle about him? Clearly he was an innovative experimenter, but how much more is there to him than that? Where, among all the “wrong-note” harmonies, and under all those skillfully juggled and zanily juxtaposed borrowed tunes—at least in his long-form orchestral and instrumental works—is his own voice? But maybe that’s the point.

Joel Pargman (violin).
No such concerns about Beethoven. The Fiato String Quartet next gave us an exemplary account of the Quartet in B-flat major Op. 18 No. 6 (published as the last of the set, it was also probably the last to be composed). Throughout the recital they played with relatively little vibrato, and this both accentuated their deliciously pin-sharp pointing of the first movement’s sprightly opening subject (and let us hear it all over again with the exposition repeat), and imparted a rather cool, plain-spoken quality to the ensuing Adagio ma non troppo

The concise Scherzo was as fleet as it should be, its edgy rhythmic dislocations nimbly handled, and the even briefer Trio teemed and tumbled like raindrops hitting a fast-flowing stream. After this, Beethoven entirely thwarts expectations of a straightforward fast finale with what almost amounts to a second slow movement—44 measures of heartfelt Adagio entitled “La Malinconia” and instructed to be played colla piĆ¹ gran delicatezzo. The challenge here is how to give this full emotional value but still avoid the main Allegretto quasi allegro body of the movement sounding facile after its intensity. Again, to my ears, the Fiato Quartet got the emphases just right.

Aaron Oltmann (viola).
Dmitri Shostakovich left us one fewer string quartet than Beethoven, and for many his cycle of 15 is as great a contribution to the medium in the 20th century as Beethoven’s was to the 19th century. The Fiato Quartet devoted the second half of their recital to his Quartet No. 3 in F major Op. 73, composed in 1946 and the first of them to depart from the traditional four-movement layout.

Shostakovich briefly attached—and then almost immediately withdrew for no known reason—explanatory titles to the five movements. The opening Allegretto was “Calm unawareness of the future cataclysm”, but the cool precision of the Fiato Quartet’s playing emphasized how rapidly its superficially sunny opening becomes smeared, darkened, and undercut, and their omission of the exposition repeat (a first in my experience of this work) only underlined the transience of that “calm unawareness.”

Ryan Sweeney (cello).
The performance became ever more impactful through the grotesquerie of the second movement (“Rumblings of unrest and anticipation”), the naked savagery of the third ("The forces of war are unleashed"), and the alternating bitterness and keening of the fourth ("Homage to the dead"). This last elegiac Adagio is quite short, and linked to the Moderato finale, whose (rapidly withdrawn) title was "The eternal question: why and to what purpose?"

This, the longest, most complex, and most ambiguous of the five movements, moves from subterranean mutterings through a lugubrious calm-after-the-storm to a kind of tentative optimism over jogtrot rhythms. This doesn’t last, however; waves of intensity revisit the anger and grief of the preceding movements, before a haunted recollection of the amiable tune from the very opening and then a whispered Adagio recitative on the first violin over a long-held chord on its companions bring the close.

The whole movement perfectly adumbrates Shostakovich’s remarkable ability to nail his listeners’ attention with Ancient Mariner-like focus while veiling any specific meaning or resolution, but to achieve the full effect requires absolute commitment, precision, and unanimity from the players. This he got in full measure from the Fiato Quartet, who I had not encountered before but would very much like to hear again. This was an auspicious start to the SBCMS’s new season, the second under the Artistic Directorship of Robert Thies. 


South Bay Chamber Music Society, Music Department Recital Hall, Los Angeles Harbor College, Wilmington, 8pm, Friday, September 20, 2019. Photos: Shostakovich et al: Alamy/Twitter; Ives: Yale University; Fiato String Quartet members: artists' website.

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