May 3 Walden Chamber Players

Photo by: Liz Linder

Photo by: Liz Linder

Walden Chamber Players scores in SFCM season-closer

The chameleon-like ensemble, which changes shape to perform a wide variety of chamber music configurations, finds the right guise for Brahms 

By David Abrams

Walden Chamber Players returned to Syracuse Saturday evening for the final Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music concert of the company’s 64th season.

The Boston-based ensemble, which changes size and instrumentation to fit a wide variety of chamber music guises, was last here in 2010. Walden on this occasion presented a diverse program of trios and quartets that began somewhat blandly but quickly picked up steam, culminating in a solid performance of the mammoth Piano Quartet in C Minor by Johannes Brahms.

As an ensemble striving to remain competitive in a crowded field of professional chamber music organizations, Walden has carved a niche for itself as an advocate of what it calls “ambitious programming.” Impressive as these words sound, however, the phrase does not always translate into “exciting new listening experiences” as the Friends of Chamber Music audience would soon learn.

During its prior Syracuse visit, Walden’s “ambitious programming” included a dreadful quartet from Krzysztov Penderecki’s so-called Post-Romantic period that tried the listener’s sensibilities and patience. Saturday’s program opening Schilflieder (Reed Songs), by second-rate late-19th century German Romantic composer August Klughardt, fared no better.

Subtitled Five Fantasy Pieces for piano, oboe and viola, Klughardt’s trio dates from 1872. The work is based upon set of lyric poems by Austrian poet Nikolaus Lenau that recounts the despair of a tormented man grieving over love lost. But while the subject matter may invite comparisons to beloved Romantic works dealing with the pain of unrequited love, the colorless musical setting here does little to complement either the poem or its pictorial imagery.

Klughardt’s sparse instrumental textures throughout much of the work hardly manage to drum up and sustain tension.  If anything, the composer’s lack of technique gives this work the feel of a student assignment in a music composition class. Certainly, there are occasional moments of warmth in these pieces, but the listener is ultimately left with lukewarm Schumann — minus the passion.

Joaquin Turina’s gypsy-flavored Piano Quartet in A Minor, which followed the Klughardt, added an exotic touch to the program’s otherwise German-centric musical fare.  Written in 1931 and scored for piano, violin, viola and cello, the Piano Quartet lacks the formal structure we expect of serious chamber works.  Turina’s use of Spanish folk music throughout the three movements nevertheless generates sufficient color to sustain listener interest.

Pianist Jonathan Bass, one of Walden’s founding members, has not lost his touch. His melodic passages in the opening Lento movement sounded gorgeous  with a rich and sensuous touch in the right hand that added warmth and sensuality to the gentle folk-like melodies. In the final movement (the most overtly “Spanish” of the three), Bass and company kicked it up a notch — adding splashes of color that matched the composer’s vivid compositional style.

The three strings (violinist Laura Frautschi, violist Christof Huebner and cellist Ashima Scripp) had some rough moments with respect to pitch during the unison passages in the two outer movements, though the beguiling guitar-like pizzicatos that permeate the second movement Vivo came off beautifully. Frautschi’s manner of delivery in the sultry Gypsy violin solo, which begins the final movement Andante, was richly rewarding and stylistically convincing.

Mozart’s cheerful Oboe Quartet in F Major, K. 370 for oboe and strings dates from 1780, on the eve of the composer’s move to Vienna (where he would spent the final and most prolific 10 years of his life). Mozart, who tended to design his instrumental works with a particular player in mind, wrote the oboe part for Friedrich Ramm, the first-chair player with the Munich Electoral Orchestra.

This sprightly work, which functions more as a lighthearted divertimento than it does a serious piece of chamber music, has no loftier purpose other than to please and entertain. And this it does rather well. Mozart’s writing here captures a Haydnesque effervescence that bubbles over like a freshly poured glass of champagne. Oboist Amanda Hardy joined Frautschi, Huebner, Scripp and Bass in a delightful romp that pasted smiles across most every face in the audience.

Hardy, an up-and coming young artist (and product of the New England Conservatory of Music), does not play with a large sound. But her exquisite and well-focused tone is a delight to the ear and well suited to chamber music settings. She executed the frequent turns, trills and ornaments in the opening Allegro with grace and elegance, never losing her sense of direction in matters of phrasing. I was particularly impressed with her level of precision and fingerwork in the technically demanding final Rondo movement. Hardy’s high “F,” which ends the movement, was delivered cleanly and gently, bringing the performance to a picture-perfect conclusion.

Walden saved its best for last with a convincing performance of Brahms’s Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op. 60.

Brahms began the work in 1855, after the 23-year-old composer went to Clara Schumann to assist her during husband Robert’s confinement at a mental institution. Brahms’s love for Clara appears to have been unrequited (at least as far as we know), though his infatuation with her continued until her death in 1896. (He died the following year.)

Brahms tinkered with the work for some 20 years, and when it was completed in 1875 he famously compared himself to Goethe’s tragic hero, Werther (who killed himself over a devoted married woman unwilling to return his affections). For this reason, the work is often called the Werther Quartet. But while one can only speculate as to whether this work was intended to be autobiographical, there’s little doubt that the Quartet in C Minor represents Brahms at his very best.

Perhaps as a result of the intonation problems in the Turina work, the Walden strings tuned carefully and meticulously while on stage prior to the performance. And it showed. The strings blended well in all four movements, and the octave passages were rock-solid. Moreover, phrasing during the expansive melodic lines was consistently rich and persuasive.

Walden captured the proper melancholic feel for the opening Allegro non troppo, where Bass finally got to flex his muscles fully during the angstful development section as Brahms unleashes the full strength of his fury. I was especially impressed with the ensemble work of violinist Laura Frautschi in this movement.  She is a strong first-chair player and a commanding ensemble leader. Kudos to violist (and founding Walden member) Christof Huebner — the only one of the string players to execute Brahms’s three-note dotted-rhythmic motif in properly over-dotted fashion.

The most overtly sensuous writing in this work comes in the gentle and wistful third movement Andante — an exquisite movement that lingers in the musical memory like the first smell of spring.

Scripp massaged her expressive and lengthy opening solo in her instrument’s richly hued alto register with deep sensitivity, although I wished there had been fewer seams audible during the wider-intervaled passages. Bass, playing the part Brahms had no doubt written for himself, pulled out all the stops in the fourth movement Finale — pounding away in the piano’s murky contrabass register. 

Saturday’s SFCM program may be its last ever at the Lincoln Middle School Auditorium: The 64-year-old arts organization returns next season to the more acoustically friendly confines of H.W. Smith Auditorium.

Now that’s an encore truly deserving of a standing ovation.

Details Box:
What:  Walden Chamber Players
Who: Presented by Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music
Where: Lincoln Middle School, 1613 James Street, Syracuse
When: May 3, 2014
Ticket prices: Regular $25, Senior $15, Student $10 
(available at door)
Information: call (315) 682-7720

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