By Dennis D. Rooney
The Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival’s 28th season opened last weekend with a program that contained two concertinos, a sonata and a nonet.
None of them could be described as popular fare, although experienced listeners might have already encountered two of them. Both works titled “Concertino,” however, certainly qualified as unfamiliar.
That by Ernest Bloch (1880-1959), for flute, viola and piano, is the composer’s own arrangement of a work that originally accompanied the flute and viola with a string orchestra, written in 1947 on a commission from New York’s Juilliard School of Music. Both the original version and trio arrangement (destined to be performed by Juilliard students) were first performed in 1950 and published the following year.
In three linked movements, this 10-minute-long work opened the program, heard Sunday at the Crest Theatre in Delray Beach. The first, Allegro commodo, is flowing and pastoral in character. The following Andante, tinged with solemnity, has the style of a passacaglia (a series of variations over a repeated pattern in the bass). The solo piano opens the finale (“Fugue humoresque”) with a brief introduction followed by a jig-like theme heard in the viola and then in the flute.
All proceed until a change of meter (marked giocosamente) ushers in a somewhat rowdy polka. Flutist Karen Fuller and violist Renée Reder played engagingly, but pianist Elaine Rinaldi’s small-scale and sometimes untidy pianism seriously underserved the character of the her part, which, especially in the last movement, asks for a virtuoso style that she could not supply.
Cellist Susan Bergeron and pianist Lisa Leonard next played Chopin’s Cello Sonata (Op. 65). By the time he wrote it in 1846, he had produced three earlier works that included the cello. In 1832, he had worked jointly with Auguste-Joseph Franchomme (1808-1884), the leading French cellist of his time, on a Grand Duo Concertant for piano and cello.
The Sonata was dedicated to Franchomme. Despite Chopin’s name, it is something of a curate’s egg. With an integrated formal structure and an expressive third movement (Largo) that has long been popular as a separate piece, it remains at the edges of the cello sonata repertoire, mainly because it is often difficult to balance with the piano, whose virtuoso style also seriously overshadows it as the cello has virtually nothing but cantabile material (e.g., not a single double stop). There is thus little suggestion of the dedicatee’s elegant bowing and expressive left hand.
Furthermore, when Franchomme played the first performance with Chopin in the Salle Pleyel (the latter’s last public concert) on Feb. 16, 1848, the Allegro moderato first movement was omitted. Admittedly, in 1848 the cello had not joined the ranks of heroic solo instruments. It would take several decades until virtuosos like Friedrich Grützmacher, Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, Victor Herbert, and especially Pablo Casals, would fulfill the instrument’s solo status.
Bergeron played with a warm tone and sympathetic manner throughout. Leonard was her expert partner.
The program’s second half opened with the Concertino for trumpet, bassoon, violin and piano by Robert Starer (1924-2001), an Austrian émigré who settled in the U. S. and taught at the Juilliard School, Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York where he became a distinguished professor in 1986. Known for his operas and ballet music, Starer also produced violin and cello Concertos that were respectively premiered by Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma.
The Concertino’s original version was for high and low voice, violin and piano; however, in 1968 the composer made the arrangement performed by Marc Reese, horn; Michael Ellert, bassoon; Mei-Mei Luo, violin; and pianist Rinaldi. An opening Andante (“Cantamus”) precedes a Lament and Alleluia, lasting about 10 minutes. Balance favored the winds over the solo violin that at times seemed to recede too much. Rinaldi played the accompanimental piano part supportively.
The program closed with the Nonetto by Louis Spohr (1784-1859), a virtuoso violinist, conductor and prolific composer who produced operas, oratorios, 10 symphonies, and a wealth of chamber music in many genres. Beethoven admired him but found some of his chromatic harmonies “too dissonant.” The Nonet dates from 1813 and is contemporaneous with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.
Entertainment music, first and foremost, it shares that explicit character with Beethoven’s Septet, which preceded it (and will be heard on this season’s final PBCMS concert), and Schubert’s Octet (1824), which followed it. In its four movements, Spohr nourished the “essential character” of the instruments expertly, creating pleasingly variegated tone color.
Nevertheless, not much of its music is memorable, although one must except the second subject of the opening Allegro and the two Trios of the succeeding Scherzo. A harmonically dense and mellifluous Adagio and a buoyant Finale complete it.
Except for some sloppy ensemble attacks passim, the performance, by Karen Fuller, flute; Erika Yamada, oboe; Michael Forte, clarinet; Stanley Spinola, horn; bassoonist Ellert; Dina Kostic, violin; violist Reder; cellist Bergeron; and Janet Clippard, contrabass, was highly enjoyable.
The festival’s Program II features music by Brahms (Piano Quartet No. 2), Ludwig Thuille and Reinhold Glière. It can be heard at 7:30 pm Friday at the Persson Recital Hall at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach; 7:30 pm Saturday at the First Presbyterian Church in North Palm Beach; and at 2 pm Sunday in the Crest Theatre at Old School Square, Delray Beach. Tickets are $30. For more information, visit pbcmf.org or call 561-547-1070.