Yesterday afternoon at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, Music in the Mishkan wrapped up its twentieth anniversary season with a performance by three members of The Bridge Players, violinist Randall Weiss, Music Director of the series, cellist Victoria Ehrlich, and pianist Marilyn Thompson. The second half of the program was devoted entirely to Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 66 (second) piano trio in C minor. The first half, on the other hand, offered of journey of discovery through seldom-performed compositions by Paul Juon, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Maurice Ravel.
The Ravel offering was the only one that was not a trio. Weiss and Ehrlich played his sonata for violin and cello, composed between 1920 and 1922. In his introductory remarks Weiss made note of the amount of time it took Ravel to complete this project. However, Ravel’s productivity declined significantly in the wake of World War I. It is worth noting that 1920 is the year in which he composed “La Valse,” which, in spite of anything Ravel may has said about the music’s abstract qualities, can easily be taken as the composer’s efforts to deal with his own shell-shocked condition.
Ravel was an ambulance driver during that war, which means that he would have encountered no end of gruesome experiences. Those memories may well have been deeply enough etched to impede his creative abilities as a composer. Indeed, as Ehrlich demonstrated before the performance began, there is even a cello passage that strongly suggests the wail of an ambulance siren. Perhaps the prolonged effort was one of trying to maintain the abstract stance Ravel established behind “La Valse” while contending with the indelibility of horrific memories.
There are no end of passages in the sonata that are as spooky as those in “La Valse.” Indeed, by the virtue of the transparency afforded by only two instruments, those passages tend to be even spookier. There are also obsessive ostinato tropes that suggest the incessant persistence of some horrifying war machine. Furthermore, Ravel’s use of ostinato often seems to impede the “normal course” of more conventional harmonic progressions. Perhaps it is not surprising that it would have taken Ravel so long to come to grips with what he was really trying to write and then follow through with enough conviction to commit it all to paper. Whatever the case may be, both Weiss and Ehrlich brought a rich rhetorical interpretation to music that Ravel may have tried to approach only through abstraction; and the result could not have been more chilling.
There was also a dark side to the Rachmaninoff selection, the first (in G minor) of the two composition given the title “Trio élégiaque.” This is a very early effort, written in January of 1892, the year in which he would later graduate from Moscow Conservatory. The richness of Rachmaninoff’s piano rhetoric is always in clear view, but the piano never overshadows the two string parts. Indeed, those who know Rachmaninoff only for the flamboyant qualities of his writing for both piano and orchestra would probably be surprised at the intimacy of this trio. Rhetorically, the piece is true to its name; but it never wallows in its melancholy. Rather, the clarity of all three of the instrumental parts suggests a heartfelt sincerity; and that quality was easily apprehended through yesterday’s performance.
The program began with a short Juon suite entitled Trio Miniatures. Like Rachmaninoff, Juon was Russian, born in 1872, the year before that of Rachmaninoff’s birth. Trio Miniatures is Juon’s music; but, strictly speaking, the suite itself was not his composition. It was arranged and published by Mikhail Press. The sources for the first three movements came from Juon’s Opus 18 collection of solo piano compositions, Satyre und Nymphen. The final movement “Danse phantastique” was the second piece in Juon’s Opus 24 set of music for piano four-hands. Each of the four pieces that Press collected was short and sweet, and The Bridge Players delivered them all with playful rhetoric. For my part they prompted a fair amount of curiosity about the original piano sources.
In contrast the Mendelssohn trio abounded with extroverted enthusiasm on all fronts. The intensity of energy recalls Bonnie Hampton’s remark at a Master Class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music about Mendelssohn’s reputation for burning his candle at both ends. Anyone who likes the “too many notes” joke from Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus clearly has not experienced the rapidity of notes flowing out of Mendelssohn’s Opus 66 as if they were coming out of a fire hose. It is only when the composer decides to head into the chorale territory of Johann Sebastian Bach, using a sixteenth-century hymn that became the basis for the BWV 130 cantata, Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir (Lord, God, we all praise you), that both performers and listeners get a chance to catch their respective breaths.
Yesterday’s spirits in the execution of this trio could not have been higher or a more appropriate farewell gesture for this anniversary season.