Saturday, June 8, 2024

Mason Concerts Season Ends With Three String Quartets


The Zelter String Quartet play Beethoven, Mason, and Korngold at Mason House

Though pot-pourri programs of varied smaller pieces and arrangements can often be fun and sometimes very rewarding, for this listener at least there’s really nothing to match an imaginatively chosen set of larger-scale works that explore and reveal what can be achieved by composers from different time-periods in one of the archetypal chamber music genres.

… And this was exactly what the redoubtable Zelter String Quartet (Gallia Kastner and Kyle Gilner, violins; Carson Rick, viola; Allan Hon, cello) provided for the final recital of the Mason Home Concerts’ 10th anniversary year: an early Beethoven quartet, and the middle items in two composers’ outputs of three—Erich Wolfgang Korngold and host Todd Mason himself, though in his case we hope and expect that there will be more!

Kyle Gilner and Gallia Kastner.
A couple of months ago a story hit the internet, or at least those bits of it concerned with classical music, on the uncovering of a supposed “secret code” in Beethoven’s manuscripts by which the composer is said to have intended to convey layers of expressive nuance above and beyond the normal indications that made it into the published editions of his works.

Intriguing? Yes... Likely? Probably not… Clickbait? Undoubtedly. But in the close and impactful proximity afforded by the purpose-designed Mason concert room, the notion began to seem not quite so outlandish as I followed with the printed score the Zelters’ account of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 6 in B-flat major, Op. 18 No. 6 (probably the last to be written of the set of six, though the compositional chronology between 1798-1800 of Beethoven’s highly accomplished first claim on the genre that Joseph Haydn, above all, had raised to pre-eminence in the chamber music sphere, is otherwise not known for certain).

Beethoven in 1803: painting
by Christian Hornemann. 
These wonderful players’ almost limpet-like precision in following, from the outset of the Allegro con brio first movement, the wealth of expressive markings—sudden changes of dynamic, mode of attack, etc.—that are spattered across the pages certainly underlined the impression of a composer obsessively intent on pushing his vision as vividly as possible, though maintaining this forensic attention to detail did not preclude spontaneity in the movement’s unfolding.

Their approach also underlined that there’s more to the Adagio ma non troppo second movement than limpid Mozartian serenity, with its central turn to the minor more clouded than usual, and gave an additional unsettled edge to the off-kilter urgency of the Scherzo. In the Trio, Ms. Kastner relished the insouciant twists and turns of the soloistic role that Beethoven gives the 1st violin.

The expressive range covered within this work’s compact and outwardly conventional four-movement design certainly comes to the fore in the lengthy Adagio introduction to the finale. Entitled La Malinconia and carrying the instruction Questo pezzo si deve trattare colla più gran delicatezzo (this piece must be treated with the greatest delicacy), it almost amounts to a separate extra slow movement.

But only “almost,” and the Zelters avoided any smoothing of the emotional jolt between its rapt, sometimes racked, introspection and the blithe jollity of the movement’s main body, punctuated though it is by brief further returns to the La Malinconia mood. Overall, this performance dug deeper into the ambiguities of this earlyish Beethoven masterpiece than any other that I can recall.

Allan Hon and Carson Rick.
The Zelter String Quartet had previously performed Todd Mason’s First (2019) and Third (2021) string quartets respectively at Mason House and in the 100-inch telescope dome at Mount Wilson Observatory (reviewed by my LA Opus colleague John Stodder here and here). While the First Quartet’s four movements, mostly in slow to moderate tempi, adumbrate an acknowledged life-journey from innocence to experience, and the single movement of the Third seems primarily a vehicle for timbral and harmonic experimentation, No. 2 (2020) is firmly structured in three separate movements, fast-slow-fast.

Todd Mason.
The Zelter seemed particularly adept at not just navigating but positively relishing the opening Allegro energico’s near-constant rhythmic wrong-footing—from 7/8 to 5/8 to 6/8 to 2/4 to 3/8, and so on—never exactly repeating a pattern and sometimes with half a dozen changes of time signature in as many measures. The result was jagged, compulsive, and unsettling, as if players and audience alike were hanging on by their fingertips to a near out-of-control vehicle. Mason does build in calmer sections, but the motion resumes and climaxes in a ff slam on the brakes.

The second movement is in the greatest contrast, opening as it does with slow pianissimo drifting initially on the 1st and 2nd violins and then all four instruments. This dreamy motion seems to belie the initial Allegretto con passione marking, but via two silent 2/4 measures that punctuate the pervasive 4/4, it works up to a powerful ff climax before subsiding back into the opening mood, the sense of stasis enhanced by mutes being added in the last 10 measures.

The finale has another complete change of mood—mutes off, and away on what sounded like a swirling peasant dance, all chattering groups of 16th notes and vigorous octave leaps, with something of a central European tinge that was surely an homage to models in Bartók and Kodály. As often in Mason's works, this movement has something of an ABA structure, with a slower Più lento con il sentimento section before the dance returns. As ever, the Zelter Quartet seemed unfazed by its stringent demands, and their virtuoso account was met with ringing cheers. Hearing the String Quartet No. 2 in its original form made a fascinating contrast with its later guise as Chamber Suite for String Orchestra, recorded as fill-up to Mason's impressive Violin Concerto, available on Ulysses Arts.

After the interval, with the Mason Concert experience corporeally enriched as ever by Ethel Phipps’s marvelous catering, Ms. Kastner and Mr. Gilner swopped the 1st and 2nd violin chairs for Korngold’s String Quartet No. 2 in E-flat major, Op. 26. His three string quartets were much more widely separated in time than Mason’s three: No. 1 in A major, Op. 16 was written between 1920-1923, at the height of his early operatic triumphs, while No. 3 in D major, Op. 34 (1944-1945) dates from the latter part of Korngold's signal career as a Hollywood film composer.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold and his
wife Luzi en route to America.
The four-movement Second Quartet lies almost exactly equidistant in time between them: Korngold composed it in 1933 when he was still living in Vienna, and shortly before his first trip to Hollywood to work with Max Reinhardt on the latter's film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Though the quartet still left the feeling that something essential in Korngold’s musical persona is diminished if not lost when he doesn’t have the sumptuous resources of a large orchestra—as is not the case with some other great composers (and Korngold was a great composer) who essay chamber music as well as orchestral works and opera—the Zelters’ affectionate performance was a perfect contrast after Beethoven’s youthful brilliance and Mason’s wide-ranging challenges.

To these ears, both the concise sonata-design Allegro and the whimsical Allegretto con moto that does duty as scherzo-and-trio recalled elements of Korngold’s Much Ado About Nothing incidental music, while after some introductory measures of eerie harmonics there was plenty of aural schlagobers to be enjoyed in the romantic Lento and in particular the concluding Tempo di valse.

Finally, we had not one but two encores: first the traditional Danish folk song Æ Rømeser, in a 2017 arrangement by the Danish String Quartet, and then, right out of left field, The Beatles’ Come Together as reworked by Quatuor Ébène in 2010.

Altogether what a feast of music this was, and a reminder if one were needed by now that within greater LA’s teeming chamber music scene, the Mason Concerts remain a unique pleasure, garnished as they are not only with Ethel Phipps’s unequalled food but also the informal and witty introductory talks by Dr. Kristi Brown-Montesano. Roll on the 2025 season!


Mason Home Concert, 3484 Redwood Ave., Mar Vista, CA 90066, 6:00 p.m., Saturday, May 11, 2024.
Images: The performance: Todd Mason; Beethoven:; Korngold: The Korngold Society.

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