Amici: “Lyric Discoveries” Reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, October 29, 2007, Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto.


An afternoon with Amici means time with high ranking players. Joaquin Valdepenas joined Dianne Werner to perform “Sonata for Clarinet and Piano,” (1945) by Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996), a composition they have recorded for RCA Victor (Red Seal 87769).

Weinberg was a protégée and lifelong friend of Shostakovich, which means he had some very hard times during the Stalin years. The first movement opens with the clarinet playing lightly, legato, over a 3/4 piano beat in quasi-carnival colours that darken into a disturbed, hectic and shrill mood of alarm, before the clarinet settles into an ambulatory pace, lyrical, but with overtones of foreboding.

The second movement is gentler, modulating between wheedling klezmeric runs of passion and protest, and sections that blend folksong melodies with serious modern, dissonant textures. The finale is introduced by a moody piano solo, into which clarinet arpeggios slither. Piano chords crash down around it like bombs on a convoy. Piano run climbs up the register and fade into comp chords as the clarinet solos quietly out of earshot.

Stephen Sitarski joins David Hetherington and the principal cello and viola of the TSO, Winona Zelenka and Teng Li, for a recital of “String Quartet in A Minor Op.35” (1894) by Anton Arensky (1861-1906). Arensky was mentored by Tchaikowsky for who he composed this unusual quartet as a memorial, with a second cello to emphasize the elegiac mood.

Arensky’s sense of melody is fluent and singing, his rhythmic patterns are unusual and his works show a sharp sense of instrumental colour. The first movement throbs with passion alternating with an almost Mozartean gaiety. These players give the music the sense of being responsive as if it were alive.

The second movement a theme by Tchaikowsky and variations, a form in which Arensky excelled, goes straight to the heart. The finale is a fugal development of a Russian patriotic hymn, reminiscent of Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Beethoven. It’s structure is confusing, and though the sections have great individual beauty, it seems a long time passing through alternating funereal and celebratory moods until final, quite awesome, orchestral crescendo.

Brian McDonagh’s “Quintet for Clarinet and Strings” subtitled “Quaestiones Disputae”, premiered earlier this year, embodies the ecstasy and frustrations of medieval philosophers who lived “in pursuit of that which cannot be understood….” The flight of the clarinet has a seemingly aleatoric path like an observer’s view of bat maneuvers amidst a drone of insects in the gathering dusk.

The showpiece of the afternoon was Erwin Schulhoff’s ” String Sextet” (1924), with Erika Raum and Stephen Sitarski on violin, Steven Dann and Teng Li on viola, David Hetherington and Winona Zelenka on cello. The piece opens in tones of Bartokian conflict and anxiety, a swirl of emotion as if a stricken butterfly were spiraling down out of space into silence. Utterly engaging and beautiful. In the second movement – Tranquillo Andante – a creaky mid-register keening backed by darker tones emerges like the voice of a lost being, wandering ghost-like but not quite despairing, calling out of flittering chaos.

The energy of Schulhoff’s original minimalism manifests in the third movement with the sounds of the massed energies of machines moving toward a goal with purpose and locomotive drive despite high register complaints that are eventually drawn into the main thrust. Anxious violas lead the way in the fourth movement with dark rumours that are picked up by solo cello touching off a hubbub of muted tones, hushed conversations and furtive asides. These subside into an atmosphere of fog insinuating itself into the stones of waterfront alleys and dockside streets.

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