JWR Articles: Live Event - Sextets (Artistic Director: Margaret Gay) - January 11, 2010
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Sextets

4 4

Naxos 8.550436
Transfiguration of the Gallery Players

The benefit of two arts organizations (and a third waiting in the wings—see below) working together in an artistic and logistical partnership had proof positive as to its wisdom and value with what was likely the Niagara première of Arnold Schönberg’s Transfigured Night.

The combined forces (Primavera Concerts and the Gallery Players of Niagara) permitted:

  1. A full house (even in January!);
  2. The financial security to program a concert with six players (2-4 being the collective norm);
  3. A different sort of repertoire that delighted, educated and energized every patron in St. Barnabas’ Church.

Schönberg’s Opus 4 is a magnificent testament to the human spirit, inspired by Richard Dehmel’s poem of the same name (yet another collaboration).

It’s a musical anomaly where the brilliant Viennese composer manages to look back with love and respect at his predecessors (the half-tone steps touted in the afternoon’s opening piece continued to seamlessly work their magic in this essay of tensions, tonality and texture) while simultaneously peer far beyond the harmonic ambiguities of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, setting the stage for the 12-tone revolution to come.

Those expecting the far more challenging later music to which Schönberg’s name has been unfairly maligned by nervous programmers (or avoided by staying away in their NFL-safe abodes) missed a unique opportunity of realizing just how wrong generalizations can be. Those who filled the pews witnessed the most impassioned, gritty and honest performance yet heard at these concerts.

Apart from the genius of this wide-ranging score (and the subtle angst of the text), the fuel for this unexpected greatness came from the talent, artistry and inspiration of violist Max Mandel. From his first solo turn in the dark, early going, it was clear that this music spoke directly to his intellect, heart and soul. Mandel had no qualms about putting everything on the line, daring his skilled colleagues to do likewise. And for the most part, they followed his lead.

Violinist Aisslinn Nosky dug deep into the daunting score and added many fine moments of drama and calm (the octaves with her colleagues shimmered, just so) even as cellist Margaret Gay ably thrust and parried with the rest. The room was marvellously attentive, allowing nearly every diminuendo into the ether to be afforded the extremely rare commodity of real silence to engulf the crowd. Like many of Rafael Kubelik’s performances (cross-reference below) the few ensemble slips and pitch vagaries were immediately forgotten; with so much to admire and risks taken aplenty, the players’ priorities fit the audience’s greatest hope to a T.

The Brahms Sextet which began the proceedings didn’t manage to generate the same degree of artistic heat. Happily, the exposition repeats were taken but too many journeys to the upper registers fell short of their intended marks and the pulse (especially in the “Allegro non troppo”) took too long to settle, leaving the cross rhythms largely insecure. After a pleasant opening (where only greater attention to unanimity on the mordents could have improved the result) the G Major “Trio” exploded into our ears with delectable zest and vigour. In the following “Adagio” the great abundance of semi-tone inner voicing had a few measures of unease until the Più animato took flight and all was well again. The “Finale” was full of wonderfully exuberant playing, its resonance with the overture to Mendelsohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a constant pleasure.

For those hoping to experience the Schönberg for themselves, there’s good news: A repeat performance is scheduled on Saturday, January 16 (8:00 p.m.) at the Niagara Artists’ Company (cross-link below). Also on the program will be the world première of Michael Oesterle’s Sextet for Strings. To complete the artistic circle, this work is based on the very same Viennese master’s Opus 4. Hearing them back-to-back promises to be another memorable evening with the Gallery Players of Niagara.

Three cheers to all of these organizations: hopefully their cooperation will become a regular feature, further enriching Niagara’s chamber music bounty. JWR

Historical perspective

Brahms: String Sextets Nos. 1 and 2
Naxos (8.550436)
Germany 1989
Three stars

This recording by the Stuttgart String Sextet (it also includes Op. 18 where the variations of the “Andante ma moderato” are severed up with admirable care and aplomb) is laced with unbridled enthusiasm and a great reluctance to lift their bows from the strings, despite the many staccato markings (especially in the first movement) indicated in the score. The exposition repeats are ignored, resulting in a truncated playtime and the consequent weakening of the structure. For those in a hurry (and desiring pleasant background music), this disc might just fit the bill. JWR

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Repertoire:
Sextet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 36 - Johannes Brahms
Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Op. 4 - Arnold Schönberg
Further information, future screening/performance/exhibition dates,
purchase information, production sponsors:
Gallery Players of Niagara Niagara Artists Centre Primavera Concerts
Cross-reference(s): Please click on the image link(s) below
for related work:

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