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[MUSIC REVIEW] Close Encounters with Felix Mendelssohn and Eduard Franck


Avalon String Quartet performed Eduard Franck's String Sextet


Great Barrington, Mass.
May 30, 2009


Review by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., May 31, 2009) Ė Close Encounters with Music (CEWM) concluded its 2008-2009 series with the second of two programs devoted to Felix Mendelssohn, on the occasion of his 250th anniversary, and Mendelssohnís little known protťgť, Eduard Franck, whose String Sextet in E-flat major, Op. 41, was given its American performance premiere yesterday at the Mahaiwe.

CEWMís Mendelssohn programs have also included works by others in his musical orbit, including Robert and Clara Schumann, and Mendelssohnís sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, adding an essential degree of context with which to understand and appreciate his work and the work of Franck.

A sequence of Variations Concertantes for Cello and Piano, performed by CEWM artistic director Yehuda Hanani and James Tocco, respectively, began the evening, providing the musical baseline from which all other works heard would deviate.

Mendelssohnís finely ordered lyricism was readily apparent, as was the influence of Johannes Sebastian Bach, whose reputation at the time of Mendelssohnís writing was in eclipse, but for whom Mendelssohn was responsible for fostering a wholesale revival in interest.

But this wasnít mere recapitulation: while Mendelssohn may have had one foot in the mathematical precision of Bachís composition, his other was leading toward Romanticism and even beyond Ė in Toccoís more freewheeling, syncopated passages, one heard glimpses of ragtime yet to come.

The forward-looking nature of much of the music played was to emerge as a theme, accidental or otherwise, of the evening. In the same variations, Hananiís pizzicato duet with Tocco also had a jazzy syncopation, although his bow work boasted an appropriately parched, period feel.

Tocco tackled a set of solo piano pieces by the Mendelssohn siblings; Fannyís in particular were fleet and athletic. Unfortunately, and by no fault of Tocco, these solo pieces were marred by unfortunately resonant and sustained high tones in the piano that apparently were feeding back into a p.a. system that also sent out a continuous low-level buzz throughout the evening that impeded the appreciation of softer, quieter passages.

Schumannís Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 47, was a vibrant display of Romanticism that even foreshadowed modernism, particularly in the Andante cantabile movement.

Schumann also may have been the patron saint of art rock; his orchestrations for four parts, featuring Tocco, Hanani, violinist Yehonatan Berick and violist Anthony Debroye, could easily be transcribed for a rock quartet, and its influence on acts ranging from the Beatles to the Electric Light Orchestra and Randy Newman was transparently clear.

The quartet packed organic peaks and valleys and ebbs and flows that passed effortlessly among the soloists, who were especially empathetic in their voicings.

After intermission, the Avalon String Quartet joined Hanani and Berick to perform the Sextet by Franck. As played, the piece demonstrated Franckís strengths and weaknesses. He was an incredibly forward-thinking composer, using Eastern European and Middle Eastern modalities, sometimes with a Gypsy feel, while maintaining his Central European roots.
His music drew more on folk than did Mendelssohn and Schumann, an approach composers would continue to explore for the next two hundred years.

The form of the sextet allowed for greater color and depth to the music, and Franck more liberally allowed tempos to vary. The players responded by elongating lines to allow them to breathe more organically, a far cry from Mendelssohnís Bach-derived clockwork. In Franckís Andante movement, some of his passages portended the Minimalism of 150 years hence in their heavy use of chromaticism and staccato repetition.

By the onset of the third movement, the Scherzo, however, Franckís limitations had grown readily apparent. As was the case with his Piano Trio, performed earlier in February, Franck lacked a strong, driving narrative of the sort that characterized the work of the Mendelssohns and Schumann.

The enthusiasm of the players, however, powered the piece in spite of its lack of a major, coherent statement, and it was a joy to see the esprit de corps among them, taking great pleasure in each otherís work as they communicated through nods, smiles, and musical gestures that acknowledged what each was saying.

Seth Rogovoy is Berkshire Livingís editor-in-chief and award-winning critic-at-large.

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