Wu Han Live II: Music@Menlo – Works of DOHNANYI & TANEYEV – Artist Led

Two massive piano quintets come to us by way of Music@Menlo and its founder, Wu Han.

Wu Han Live II: Music@Menlo – DOHNANYI: Piano Quintet No. 1 in c minor, Op. 1; TANEYEV: Piano Quintet in g minor, Op. 30 – Wu Han, piano/ Alexander Sitkovetsky & Nicolas Dautricourt, violins/ Paul Neubauer, viola/ David Finckel, cello (Dohnanyi)/ Arnaud Sussmann & Sean Lee, violins (Taneyev) – Artist Led, 70:43 (11/28/14)  ****:  

I happened to have had the good fortune to be in attendance at these August 2014 performances, so somewhere in the (lost) applause were my own hands.  For a number of summers, I have attended (and reviewed) the Music@Menlo series in Atherton, CA, established by Taiwanese-American pianist Wu Han (b. 1959) and her husband, cellist David Finckel. Wu Han also become deeply involved with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center; so the record label ArtistLed (est. 1997) became a direct corollary to her concert work with an extraordinary ensemble of gifted musicians. With the audio engineering of Da-Hong Seetoo, the quality of the recorded performances remains at a distinctively clear and resonant pitch.

The 1895 Piano Quintet No. 1 by Erno Dohnanyi announces his loyalty to and extension of the Romantic tradition embodied in Schumann and Brahms, the latter of whom heard this work and remarked that “I could not have written it better myself.” Having committed himself to sponsoring the career of the young Hungarian composer, Brahms arranged for a performance of the Quintet in Vienna – and providing the keyboard part himself – thus catapulting Dohnanyi’s repute as the legitimate heir to Liszt. The opening Allegro presents a darkly agitated theme, harmonized by ominously dense supporting tissue in triplets to mark this composer’s won version of sturm und drang. While the secondary theme moves to E-flat Major, the specter of the Brahms First Piano Trio rather haunts this music. Alexander Sitkovetsky’s contribution in the first violin has its complement in the leading motifs offered by David Finckel’s cello.

When Han’s piano declares the theme, fortissimo, the entire effect becomes decidedly symphonic. The tender E-flat theme tries to offer consolation, but the undercurrent of emotional violence proves too string, even turning to mortal thoughts.  The ensuing Scherzo could easily be attributed to Brahms, with its counter-theme a virtual transposition of the funereal movement of the Schumann Quintet.  The music reveals its form as a furiant, a slow folk form often typical of Dvorak.  The slow movement, Adagio, quasi andante, seems to have been inspired by more Schumann, the Piano Quartet, Op. 47.  Here, Paul Neubauer’s ardent viola makes its presence felt in collaborative harmony with David Finckel.  The melodic grace of the music belies the tender age of the composer, whose eighteen years would then qualify his gift for song on a par with that of Mendelssohn. The exuberant finale sports a rondo more in line with the Magyar tradition in Dohnanyi’s gene pool. In 5/4, the music lushly embraces the lyrical element while integrating a Bach-like fugue whose subject relies on the main theme of movement one, a “cyclic” strategy that here allies Dohnanyi with Schubert and Beethoven. The rousing coda, flaring with sparing, raised the Menlo roof, but the audience reaction has been excised.

Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915) stands as the first to graduate from the Moscow Conservatory with a gold medal in composition and performance; these honors led to Taneyev’s appointment in 1878 to the faculty position formerly occupied by Tchaikovsky. In 1881, Taneyev assumed the leadership of the piano class which had suffered the death of its pedagogue Nikolai Rubinstein. From 1885 until 1889, Taneyev served in the capacity of the Conservatory’s Director, and his students counted Rachmaninov and Scriabin among them. Taneyev, like Tchaikovsky before him, embraced “German legitimacy” in his approach to musical form, favoring counterpoint and classical, transitional procedures over innately Russian folk materials advocated by “The Mighty Five,” who took their tradition from Glinka.

The 1911 Piano Quintet testifies to a vast musical intelligence and a prodigious piano technique, which explains simultaneously why the work dominates Russian chamber music up until Shostakovich and why the work receives so few performances. Much like Liszt, Taneyev exploits “transformation of theme” as a guiding principle, setting a brooding, Introduzione: Adagio mesto as the opening of the Quintet, and thus establishing all the motifs required for the huge expansion of the materials. Likely, Prokofiev knew the work well enough so as to echo it in his Violin Sonata No. 1 in f. The very slow impetus of the Introduction has Wu Han in lyrical gestures but also descending to the bottom of the scale. Suddenly, the opening theme assumes a forceful, thrusting tenor, ff, then modulates to a second, lyrical statement, opulently harmonized. Already, Taneyev has us sensitive to distinctive string and keyboard colors, especially when the development – announced by the piano “stormily” – employs polyphonic gestures. David Finckel invokes the recapitulation with cello riffs just as ferociously bravura as those consistent in Han’s keyboard.

The Scherzo: Presto vibrates with fleet energy and mercurial charm. The strings proceed with bouncing staccato motion, while Wu Han – after a kind of parody of the Beethoven Fifth rhythm – must execute scales that increase in range and intensity as the music progresses. The string work has been carefully notated for effect: ricochet a la point means to bounce the bow to create a detached, brisk march. Such transparency provides a foil to the symphonic ambitions of the first movement. Taneyev marks the Trio Moderato teneramente, a warm, earthy gesture whose opening will reappear momentarily in the Prestissimo coda. The scale pattern in Han’s left hand becomes the basis of the ensuing Largo movement, a passacaglia that nods to Bach and Brahms, at once.  The movement opens in block chords cut from adamantine. The Largo then proceeds in dialogue format: the stately theme divides between keyboard and strings, with obsessive tones from Finckel’s cello and later, music-box emanations from Han. If Bach does not serve as godfather for this haunted procession, then Handel does; and Shostakovich would later seize on this call for classical form as his own. The contest between lyrical expression and severe rigor of form has rarely had such a Russian expression.

Taneyev obviously wishes his composition to evolve from the minor mode of G to the major, but he withholds this inevitability of his Finale – Allegro vivace with a maelstrom of perpetual flux of conflicting emotions. The cyclical impulse arrives with quotes from the composition’s opening, with ceaseless bravura in the piano part. Taneyev has hardly stated his convulsively breathless motifs when the music plunges ahead into a hectic development section. While passionate lyricism makes its superheated mark, Taneyev has saved his piece de resistance for the last: his fortissimo conclusion wants the piano to play Quasi campane – like bells – so as to culminate the entire piece with a kind of fervent doxology in G Major that Rachmaninov must have envied.  You will have to supply the applause yourself.

—Gary Lemco

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