In his introductory remarks to the major work on the program, venerable clarintetist James Campbell waxed poetical on how the passage of time tempers performers, composers and listeners.
Already retired, the oft-told tale of Richard Mühlfeld’s artistry driving Johannes Brahms back to the fount of creativity in his “autumn” years deftly set the stage for the dissertation—a series of questions, replete with a couple of musical illustrations—that followed.
Could the German master have written the Clarinet Quintet when just 21, or did it take a lifetime of incubation?—a work in progress of the most sublime order. Does it take himself, Campbell, a lifetime of performing to fully/finally understand how to play this masterpiece? Will the much younger members of the Cecilia Quartet need a lifetime of digging into the score to completely grasp the meaning of every measure? (It was revealed that Campbell and the Cecilias had their maiden collaboration of Op. 115 mere weeks ago at the Waterside Summer Series.)
Finally, rhetorically, would it take a lifetime for the audience to truly appreciate Brahms’ art?
Clearly, it’s no longer possible for chamber music patrons to be left to their own thoughts, expectations and experience when venturing into a Chamberfest concert!
As to the actual result, how fortunate indeed for this ever-improving ensemble to be mentored on this complex work by Campbell. Living up to the promise of the verbal introduction, I have never heard a more introspective, reflective performance. Looking back over my own lifetime of studying, performing and listening to the quintet (cross-reference below), I was delighted to learn still more—notably the hesitant turn of the opening clarinet phrase, heralding the many moments of gentle pull rather than driving push to come.
The strings almost always followed their mentor’s lead, giving the music a veritable autumnal glow. However, the inherent, burning—at times searing—drama that others have mined (notably Karl Leister, James Morton) was stymied in part by Campbell’s vibrato-rich, too-careful-by-half approach to the extreme upper register: those slightly delayed attacks couldn’t/shouldn’t be matched by the “instant speech” of his bowed colleagues.
Warmth was abundant, but vrai angst must await another journey to this Mt. Everest-like challenge.
Most intriguingly, the two opening works (Leos Janácek’s String Quartet No. 1 and Jeffrey Ryan’s String Quartet #3) suffered from the same problem as the Brahms.
Both compositions were largely aural representations of Tolstoy’s music-based novella, The Kreutzer Sonata (cross-reference below). The Janáček provided much evidence of the continuing improvement in ensemble, dynamics and balance of the Cecilia Quartet. A fine frenzy was kindled—especially in the sul ponticello/trills segments; most of the reading was truly impassioned.
Ryan’s more murderous approach was a marvel of consonance disintegrating into deadly dissonance. What fun that on three occasions Stravinsky’s motivic and equally life-and-death struggle in The Rite of Spring slipped into the fray. (Coincidentally, five hours later, Jon Kimura Parker’s Olympian arrangement of Stravinsky’s masterpiece for just one piano would bring down the house like never before—cross-reference below.)
What was lacking in all three performances was the collective will to throw caution to the wind—look no further than Rafael Kubelik for dozens of examples—and unleash the music from its confining barlines, sending it directly, unreservedly into the hearts and souls of all listeners—no matter their experience with our most universal art.
When and if the Cecilia Quartet takes that chance, the need for any pre-concert remarks will vanish as surely as the composer’s intentions are completely understood on both sides of the proverbial footlights. JWR