Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Off Dvořák's Beaten Path

It is a bit sad to think that most listeners know about Antonín Dvořák through a relatively limited number of compositions, while a large number of his works, particularly his chamber music, are true gems that "pass unnoticed." Last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, three of those gems received the notice they have always deserved through an "All Dvořák Program" in the Faculty Artist Series of concerts. The motivating force behind mining these gems was Paul Hersh, who contributed as both violist and pianist and was joined by both alumnae (all women, hence the feminine suffix) and current Conservatory students.

The evening began with Dvořák's Opus 47, a cycle of five bagatelles, which may well have come about as an accident of circumstance. The circumstance had to do with Dvořák meeting to play string quartets at the house of one of his friends in a room which happened to have a harmonium. This gave him the idea of involving the harmonium in the music they played; and, since Dvořák's instrument was the viola, the result was scored for two violins, cello, and harmonium. Since Dvořák had originally been trained as an organist, he had both the feel for playing the harmonium and the ear to weave it into a chamber music fabric. The result was Opus 47; and, in this case at least, its eccentric orchestration serves as an excuse for why it is so little heard. Nevertheless, it has a haunting quality that deserves more attention. The harmonium smoothly shifts from a continuo role of long, sustained chords to a voice in the contrapuntal fabric, while its reedy sonorities reinforce the element of "folk color," which we expect of those composers we classify as "nationalist." I described the work as a cycle, because its structure is cyclic in nature, somewhat like a rondo on a multi-movement scale. It may have been composed on a lark having to do with little more than Dvořák wanting to play his friend's harmonium, but the result deserves more listening.

The second work on the program also has a curious compositional history. Cypresses began in 1865 as a cycle of eighteen songs for voice and piano on love poems by the Czech poet Gustav Pfleger Moravský. This was Dvořák's first recorded effort at vocal writing; and many (probably including Dvořák himself) were not particularly happy with how the texts were set. The music stuck with him, however; and in 1887 he rearranged twelve of the settings for string quartet, five of which were played in that form last night. If this work is little known among the chamber music set, it may be more familiar to the ballet crowd. Anthony Tudor drew upon the string quartet setting (along with, as the American Ballet Theater (ABT) Web page puts it "other chamber music for strings") for one of his last (and certainly one of his greatest) works, "The Leaves Are Fading." I was an ABT subscriber when this work was added to their repertoire; and I delighted in the way that Tudor had tapped into all the passion in Dvořák's music, even without the explicit support of the Moravský texts. My only regret was having to hear this amazing chamber music played by a string orchestra, which is why this part of last night's program probably had the greatest visceral effect on me. As with the bagatelles, much of the magic could be found in the contrapuntal fabric, in which the very perception of melody often emerges across the voices, rather than within any single voice. Tudor was almost always ambitious in his selections of music. In "The Leaves Are Fading" he was downright brilliant; but it was only in hearing that music returned to its chamber music setting that I could fully appreciate how brilliant his perceptions had been.

The final work on the program was the Opus 68 four-hand piano composition From the Bohemian Forest, written shortly after those Opus 59 Legends on which I am currently working. On the basis of some prefatory remarks given by Hersh, I got the impression that this was Dvořák's "Czech answer" to Robert Schumann's Opus 82 Waldscenen, since the former had apparently groused that the latter had already taken all the good names for the movements! Well, Dvořák's Bohemian woods are definitely not Schumann's; and much of the distinction has to do with "local color," much of which is the same as what I am currently encountering in the Legends. Nevertheless, this is a "four-hand voice" that is characteristically different from that of both the Legends and the two sets of Slavonic Dances; and the opportunity to hear that voice was welcome, indeed.

No comments: