The heat is on at the SICMF 2016 – not outside where the Western Cape is in the grip of winter, but in every available rehearsal space as well as nook and cranny where student ensembles can fit in to prepare for their daily concerts. The feeling of expectation regarding this coming weekend’s orchestral concerts is especially tangible when walking in the vicinity of the Conservatoire where the Festival Symphony- and the Festival Concert Orchestras are in rehearsal for their challenging but exciting weekend concerts. For now PAUL BOEKKOOI reports on Monday night’s performances of two famous, but seldom heard chamber music masterpieces: Dvorák’s Piano Quintet in A major, Opus 81 and George Enescu’s String Octet, Opus 7.

From his early years as a composer, Dvorák had first hand experience in composing for strings and the piano. As a young violinist he and some of his best friends were performing in Bohemian ensembles specialising in Czech folk music. He became a professional violist before turning more seriously towards composition. Throughout his career he composed for different chamber music combinations: four piano trios, two piano quartets, and two piano quintets. The first of his two quintets, composed in 1872, is seldom performed. Dvorak actually, during a fit of self-criticism, tore it to pieces. Fortunately for us it reappeared after his death. The Piano Quintet in A major, Opus 81, dates from 15 years later (1887).

Driven by a renewed confidence and an all-round maturity this quintet is in the same league as those by Schumann or Brahms. It is, arguably, even more transparent and especially lucidly written for the strings than Schumann’s work and in some ways also more approachable and varied than the somewhat strict and emotionally laden Piano Quintet in F minor by Brahms.

On stage to perform Dvorák’s quintet which is known for its very special moments of a dreamy kind of charm, was Ilya Friedman (piano), Alissa Msragulis (1st violin), Farida Bacharova (2nd violin), Xandi van Dijk (viola) and Alexander Buzlov (‘cello). With this combination of top notch musicians with the majority having had their training in Russia and other renowned music schools, the interpretation as a whole also brought out the passion which here is inherently part of Dvorák’s musical language.

The opening theme of the Allegro, ma non tanto first movement which was communicated with subtle expression by the ‘cellist, reminds one of a main character in a play making his/ her entry on stage. This instrument carries the kind of personality traits that are later evenly spread throughout all five instruments. Solos are reserved for each of them, with the pianist often the leading, but in Ilya Friedman’s vision of the score, never the pre-eminent or dominant force. His musicianship was so integrated, but at all times also in aural and  spacious terms so refined, that he predominantly turned the piano into more of a lyrical than a dramatic commentator. There are solos for everyone. Both the violins and the viola carried the melodic lines with an intense fluency which added to the greatness of the piece.

Especially the following two middle movements have unusual folkloristic ingredients. In the Dumka: Andante con moto the origin of this melancholic threnody in A-B-A form (slow-fast-slow) is Ukranian. However, Dvorak’s sunny and often movingly sentimental disposition turns this into one of the composer’s most charming movements in his chamber music oeuvre. With some amazingly glorious dynamic contrasts in the playing and the unified feeling amongst the five musicians where exactly the music should take the listener, it became the heart of this particular work. In the third movement, Scherzo (Furiant): molto vivace, it is a pedigree Bohemian dance with a powerful rhythm which the composer uses. Some of the high register piano writing in this scherzo was a new kind of experiment for Dvorák. The tempo chosen here by the quintet was arguably a bit hectic, but it nevertheless communicated the excitement which is, quite simply, grounded in the notes. The Allegro-finale brought forth the kind of playing in which all the elements of the work is encapsulated, including a playful exercise in mock-fugal writing which sounded enthralling.

And now for something completely different: Enescu’s String Octet, composed in 1900. It is, looking at it from any possible angle, an exceptional and original work. Even the most astute and experienced listener would most likely be able to predict where the music is going while listening to this four-movement work. Written when still in his teens, it has a kind of overpowering emotional maturity, although it is not caught up in the conventional structures of the time. It is not a matter (yet) of life, death and transfiguration like we find in Alban Berg’s Violin C oncerto of some 35 years later, but it often made me think of it. This octet is extremely rich in stylistic diversity: Romanticism, Impressionism, Classicism, and folk music. This and more is passing the parade, but the most amazing and riveting aspect of the work is that thematically it is already so personal, but at the same time also universal.

The first experience and reaction when hearing an unknown work live, is usually a personal one. The mood of the listener is constantly influenced by the musical content of the work. While listening to this Enescu octet I jotted down the type of emotional impact it has: There’s, thank God, some humour, but also, and often more prominently, anguish, fury, gladness, despair, melancholy, bitterness, snatches of hope, resignation and, thankfully, also exuberance – especially in the second, partly aggressive movement marked Très fougueux, and finale, Mouvement de valse bien rythmée – resembling quite a grim, sarcastic waltz.

The opening movement is perhaps the most conventional one, with sonata form rather recognisable, as well as some folkloristic elements which reminds us that Enescu could also write something like a Romanian Rhapsody for orchestra which sounded a lot like Liszt. His writing for strings is exceptional and diverse in affect and sound. In this movement there a number of solos which bring lyrical elements to the fore, with a closing page where the first violins ends ppp, with the leader’s fragile chords disappearing into eternity.

In the already mentioned second movement the ensemble is heated up to an almost feverish level, with glissandi flying all over the place in a more restrained part of this piece before it swells up again. It was surprising in the third movement, Lentement, than Enescu created a lullaby-ish atmosphere, becoming more cheerful after a while before a more threatening episode develops. Later there are some passages with multi-tonal effects… Schoenberg creeping up? In the finale, apart from the remarks already made, Enescu seems to search for an artistically apt ending. He once again opts for calmness, but there is no sign of a real concluding resolution.

This performance deserved far more than just a standing ovation. The total, nearly feverish dedication of every string player must be lauded by so much more: Laurel-branches would be an excellent idea!


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