By Dennis D. Rooney
Music for string quartet took up the first half of the third program of the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival’s 28th season, which I saw Sunday at Delray Beach’s Crest Theatre.
Flutist Karen Fuller joined violinists Dina Kostic and Claudia Cagnassone; violist Renée Reder; and cellist Susan Bergeron for the Nocturne and Scherzo by Arthur Foote (1853-1937). Known in his lifetime as one of the “Boston Classicists,” Foote was the first American composer of consequence to receive his entire musical training in his native country. His works include choral and orchestral works (the Suite in E major for Strings, Op. 63, is the best-known of the latter), chamber music and songs.
The Nocturne and Scherzo was written in 1918. Lasting about 10 minutes, it explores some elegiac as well as more forthright emotions in the Nocturne (which flutists often perform with string orchestra as Night Piece). The Scherzo isn’t exactly rollicking but pleasant withal in its sedate way. Fuller was definitely primus inter pares in the ensemble but received excellent support from her colleagues.
Haydn’s completed the six quartets of Op 76. in 1797 or 1798, dedicating them to the Hungarian count Joseph Georg von Erdődy (1754–1824). They were published simultaneously in London and Vienna in 1799. The dedicatee’s surname became the set’s nickname.
The fourth of them has the additional nickname of “Sunrise” on account of the rising figure in the first violin against chordal accompaniment that begins the opening Allegro con spirito. A conventional exposition leads to an innovative development, in which the “sunrise” melody appears in the minor mode before a recapitulation that significantly expands and enriches the opening materials, highlighting the constant development present in the quartet from beginning to end.
The following Adagio is hymnlike with notes of melancholy. Some commentators have compared it to a sunset. The minuet, a robust German waltz with a steady downbeat and strong forward momentum, replaces the courtly dance suggested by the title. The trio, with its drone, suggests a peasant celebration with musette or bagpipes.
The folk-like tune that opens the concluding Allegro, ma non troppo shows Haydn anticipating “developing variation” long before Brahms did it. Over the course of fewer than 200 measures the tempo gradually increases from Più allegro to a final Più presto. The players delivered a well-prepared and thoughtful performance of a work that illustrates how Haydn “raised music to the highest levels of elegant play and the sheer pleasure of delicious design.”
The second half of the program opened with the work of the obscure composer Alessandro Besozzi (1702-1781), an oboe virtuoso and composer descended from a Neapolitan family of instrumentalists. Born in Parma, at age 12 he became a member of the Irish Guard, an oboe band created in 1702 by Antonio Farnese, Duke of Parma. His career took him to Dresden, Stuttgart, London and Paris, before spending his final years in Turin.
He composed prolifically but little of his output was published in his lifetime. The Trio No 4 in E-flat is one of many works for small ensembles that often included two violins (or oboe replacing one violin) and a bass instrument, in this case bassoon. Its three movements (Adagio – Allegro – Allegro) suggest a mixture of the baroque sonata da chiesa (slow-fast-slow-fast) and the sonata da camera (fast-slow-fast). Oboist Erika Yamada, oboe; Mei-Mei Luo, violin; and Michael Ellert, bassoon played the brief movements smoothly.
Less obscure than Besozzi, Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942) is still not well-known, although performances and recordings of his vocal and instrumental works have proliferated during the past quarter-century. A native Viennese, Zemlinsky was admitted to that city’s conservatory in 1884, where his teachers included Robert Fuchs and Anton Bruckner. After befriending Arnold Schoenberg, Zemlinsky married the younger composer’s sister. He worked with Otto Klemperer at the Kroll Opera in Berlin until his Jewish ancestry, however diluted, forced him back to Vienna, then the Anschluss propelled him to the U.S., where he died in Scarsdale, N.Y., of pneumonia.
In 1893, Brahms arranged for his publisher, Simrock, to publish the young Zemlinsky’s Clarinet Trio (Op. 3), written that same year. Despite its similarity to the elder composer’s Clarinet Trio (Op. 114), Zemlinsky’s work shows Wagnerian influences as well as Brahmsian ones, and is harmonically more advanced and denser in texture.
Clarifying those textures and energizing the high-profile musical materials are important challenges to successful performance of so much fin de siècle chamber music with piano. Michael Forte, clarinet; cellist Bergeron and pianist Joseph Kingma (who initially appeared onstage alone to play Debussy’s Clair de lune in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Moonwalk) negotiated its patterns very successfully but in general did not project sufficient musical personality to make the music memorable.
The festival’s Program IV features music by C.P.E. Bach, Michael Head and Beethoven (the Septet, Op. 20). 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.