Friday, March 21, 2008

The Sound of a Sextet

I sometimes feel at a disadvantage for not being able to play any instrument in the string family. (No, I do not count the washtub bass that I played during my brief engagement with a bluegrass group.) There is something about the rich diversity of sound one can evoke from just one of these instruments that compounds in such remarkable ways as the ensemble grows. One could hear this in the concert at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music that featured three members of the violin faculty, and one heard it last night in the Chamber Music Masters concert at the Conservatory that featured cellist Joel Krosnick. The first of these concerts progressed from duos to a trio; the second culminated in a sextet.

I have to confess that I am a real sucker for the sound of a string sextet with its equal pairings of violins, violas, and cellos. I think I got "hooked" many years ago, when Jaime Laredo organized a concert at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, which consisted entirely of the two Brahms sextets, each one played on either side of the intermission. I have a similar weakness when Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir de Florence" is played in its intended sextet form. However, the ultimate in that sextet sound has to be Arnold Schoenberg's "Verklärte Nacht." When I wrote about the performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's K. 515 string quintet that took place during Robert Mann's visit to the Conservatory, I described listening to it as being "a bit like eavesdropping on a very intimate and highly amicable social conversation." In "Verklärte Nacht" every instrument also has the personality of a unique voice, but the effect is more one of drama than of social conversation. Nevertheless, Schoenberg's approach to drama is rather unique; and this is what makes the listening experience so interesting.

One way to explain this would be through the terminology of Kenneth Burke, which seems appropriate, since the sextet is based on a highly narrative poem (of the same name) by Richard Dehmel. At its highest level of abstraction, the poem is a dialog between two agents: A woman confesses, and a man forgives. (This is not to reductively oversimplify the poem but, from a narratological point of view, to sort out the story from the discourse.) However, Schoenberg was not interested in the traditional approach of program music to illustrate the core story; and, as a result, he shifted his attention to the scene in which the story takes place. This is the "night" of the title, which is the focus of Dehmel's first stanza, briefly appears in the third stanza (which stands between the woman's confession and the man's reply), and serve to wrap up the final line, which characterizes the "transfiguration." In some ways the listener might to better to put aside the poem (which Schoenberg himself had suggested) and turn (which he had not suggested) instead to some of his landscape paintings (which I had the good fortune to see at the Galerie St. Etienne in Manhattan late in 1984. These canvasses are less interested in objects than in the play of color and light; and Schoenberg's approach to Dehmel's night and the critical role played by the moon (which may or may not anticipate the "moon views" of Pierrot Lunaire). From this point of view, the individuality of the instrumental voices almost constitutes an embodiment of brushwork in auditory form.

Now all this may be a ploy on my part. "Verklärte Nacht" is a rather long piece of uninterrupted music; and, while it may have five large sections corresponding to Dehmel's five stanzas, I still have trouble finding my way around its expanse of time. (This is probably why I leap at any opportunity to hear a concert performance. I can negotiate Gustav Mahler's longest symphony movements, but my ears still need more exposure to "Verklärte Nacht!") In this respect the Conservatory performers (Ian Swenson and student Daniel Jang on violin, Paul Hersh and student Alexa Beattie on viola, and Joel Krosnick and Jennifer Culp on cello) honored the seamlessness of Schoenberg's texture, consistent with his avoidance of sharp object boundaries in his landscape paintings. More importantly, though, they were sensitive to all the gradations of color in the sonorities, which is why I feel that the metaphor of brushwork contributes to the listening experience.

This sextet was sharply contrasted by the worked which preceded it just before the intermission, the Opus 7 duo for violin and cello by Hanns Eisler. Eisler studied with Schoenberg but is probably better known for his collaborations with Bertolt Brecht. This duo (which paired Krosnick with violinist Axel Strauss) had a much sharper sense of "objects," cast in rather traditional forms but rendered with an extremely free chromaticism.

This Eisler-Schoenberg axis was complemented by the opening of the concert, which was the Opus 1, Number 1 piano trio of Ludwig van Beethoven. It is interesting to compare the Opus 1 trios with the Opus 2 sonatas that opened András Schiff's performance of the complete cycle of piano sonatas last October. They both begin with an energetic ascending arpeggio line, they are both rich in wit, and they both involve what, in writing about the Schiff recital, I called "the rhetorical impact of the rest." Thus, once again the case was made that, even in his Opus 1, Beethoven was exploring how to stray from the beaten path, setting examples that would later be followed by Schoenberg and Eisler. For this performance Strauss and Krosnick were accompanied by piano student Kevin Korth; and as a group they knew exactly how to honor both the impact of the silences and the wit that makes the listening such a treat.

All this set me to thinking back to Krosnick's comments on Tuesday evening about not performing the notes too "factually." Each of these three compositions had much to communicate to the listener; but none of them communicated through "factual" means. To go back to the narratological framework, everything was in the discourse; and the "story" was incidental. Once this was accepted, it was easy to let the music speak for itself.

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