The seventh of the Concert Programs at the annual Music@Menlo summer chamber music festival was entitled “Impassioned.” The beautifully comprehensive and informative program books offered an accompanying image of the Eiffel Tower during an electrical storm, forks of lightning breaking over the ominous Parisian skyline, alluding to the “visceral emotions” that were to come from tonight’s performance. With a strong lineup of works by Schumann, Fauré and Dvořák in store, I left the calming sunny skies of Atherton outside and prepared myself for the storm of music to come.

David Finckel and Wu Han © Christian Steiner
David Finckel and Wu Han
© Christian Steiner

Violist Richard O’Neill and pianist Gibert Kalish opened the concert with a sumptuous performance of Schumann’s Märchenbilder (“Fairy-Tale Pictures”). Composed in 1851 in Düsseldorf during his tenure as the Municipal Music Director, there are few clues as to the programmatic fairy-tale basis of this work. In similar fashion to his Märchenerzählungen (“Fairy-Tales”) for clarinet, viola and piano composed only a few years later in 1853, the specifics are left to the imagination of both performer and audience. Although there are only two performers, Märchenbilder is truly a chamber work. Both musicians excelled in highlighting the most important melodic and thematic lines, seamlessly connecting and accompanying where necessary. O’Neill’s playing was light and sweet, often providing a simple innocence. Occasionally, his sound became submerged, most noticeably during his rapid triplet passages in the frenetic third movement which, if heard in their entirety, were skillfully executed.

The most curious work on the program was Fauré’s Piano Quartet no. 2 in G minor. It was in stark contrast to the somewhat lighter and characteristically French music that is perhaps more typically associated with his music. Intriguingly, it is the First Quartet that became the more popular of the two, perhaps due to the mystery that surrounds the creation of the Second Quartet. Aside from the date of composition (around 1885-86), the 1887 premiere in Paris, featuring Fauré himself as pianist, and the score dedication to German pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, there is very little that is known about this piece. The dedication, however, seems most relevant considering the more robust nature of this work: it shares a similar writing style to that of the German Romantic composers.

It took me a little while to get into this piece, but by the exquisite slow third movement I was mesmerized. Designed to evoke the church bells that he heard as a child in the village of Cadirac, the movement opens with a distant, repeated chordal theme which is shortly followed by a simple viola solo. As the piece begins to open outwards, it returns to this beguiling ‘church bell’ theme and is later presented by a wonderfully contrasting pizzicato viola and cello version. Each musician blended exceptionally well throughout, producing a firm yet hazy nostalgic atmosphere. An exceedingly devilish scherzo movement preceded the slow movement, asking much of the pianist but which Wu Han answered with strength, dexterity and accuracy. The two outer movements represented this associated with the aforementioned German Romantic style, but lacked the same effective direction. However, the inner movements provided more than enough beauty, and sparked a curiosity to explore this work further.

If there was one work on the program that expressed the “impassioned” theme of tonight's concert, it was without doubt Dvořák’s Piano Trio in F minor. Not only was this hugely substantial piece full of depth, passion and wonder, but it was also performed with astounding excellence and distinction by pianist Gilbert Kalish, violinist Arnaud Sussmann and cellist David Finckel. In similar fashion to the Fauré quartet, this work was not indicative of the style that is most commonly associated with Dvořák, who often incorporated elements of Czech folk music. This Piano Trio is the third of four that he composed, and is more heavily influenced by the musical language of the German Romantics. This is evident throughout the entire work and is a testimony to his evolving compositional style, during a time when he was personally acquainted with Brahms.

The first movement was the perfect indication of his intent, beginning with a powerfully dramatic statement and progressing through turbulent themes which reappear in the final movement. Dvořák does not, however, leave his roots entirely behind with the inclusion of a distinctly Bohemian polka rhythm in the second movement and a lively folk dance which opens the fourth.

A key element of this successful rendition was the way in which the musicians directed the music at all times. There were never moments where the music stagnated. And despite numerous changes in tempo throughout, the pacing was always coherent, avoiding the all-too-familiar ‘sea-sickness’ feeling. In a work such as this, it is not easy to achieve such a broad overview when presented with such flexible and deeply expressive musical ideas. With great impetus, forward motion and precision, this substantial work was presented and explored with remarkable attention and skill. Each performer displayed a obvious admiration for the music and a love which permeated various different levels. The result was a performance that captured the true essence of the music and an experience that lingered deep within the audience.

***11