Legacy of Bach Shapes Diverse Music@Menlo

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The Danish String Quartet made its Music@Menlo debut June 27. (Brian Benton)
The Danish String Quartet made its Music@Menlo debut June 27. (Brian Benton)
By Gary Lemco

The profound impact of Bach’s contrapuntal legacy on multifarious generations of composers was the subject of the July 27 Saturday night concert at The Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton, under the aegis “Through Bach,” which motivates the Music@Menlo concert series this season.

Beginning with Bach preludes and fugues and ending with Britten’s richly-textured Prelude and Fugue for Eighteen Strings, Op. 29 (1943), this traversal of eight composers showed the luxuriance and rapture that the polyphonic mode provided those touched by Bach’s passionate counterpoint.

Pianist Gilles Vonsattel (Jean-Claude Capt)
Pianist Gilles Vonsattel (Jean-Claude Capt)

Gilles Vonsattel – known to some us via his excellent work at the 2009 Honens Festival – performed three Bach preludes and fugues from the Well Tempered Clavier, Book I (1722) to open the formalities: E Major, E Minor, and G Major. Certainly Vonsattel invests deep thought into his interpretations, and the aura he projects literally neutralized the audience compulsion to applaud, particularly after a mesmerizing Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue in E Minor, from Op. 87 that opened the concert’s second half. Vonsattel does play quickly, though he manages to retain crisp articulation and a fluid, robust line.

The Danish String Quartet made its West Coast debut – Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violins; Asbjørn Norgaard, viola, and Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, cello – and was greeted with a flurry worthy of rock stars, in Mozart’s 1788 Adagio and Fugue in C Minor, K.546. This piece was Tchaikovsky’s favorite Mozart work and the quintessential mode of counterpoint he wished to emulate. The grueling opening notes of the Adagio established the rigorously lachrymose character of the entire work, which in some seven minutes distills any number of Bach contrapuntal procedures. The gloomy Adagio has much in common with both Don Giovanni and the Masonic Funeral Music. Sjolin’s resonant cello led the fugue subject, an angular and often cruelly severe moment of intense personal expression, the passing dissonances as close to Schoenberg as Mozart’s evolving Classical style would permit.

Violinists Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen and Frederik Øland (Brian Benton)
Violinists Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, Frederik Øland (Brian Benton)

The Danes stayed on stage, now to play Haydn’s String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 20, No. 5 (1774). Like the Mozart opus, Haydn chooses to depart dramatically from the galant niceties of the aristocratic court. This Sturm und Drang sensibility infiltrated the first movement, in which violinist Frederik Øland played a concertante part over the other instruments’ support. Each of the parts then began to assert its individuality, especially as the music modulates to A-flat Major. Dialogues between the violinists became quite earnest, intimate as well as harmonically wayward. The F Minor Minuet movement, too, avoided poise and symmetrical comfort for a triple meter that had its unnerving elements. The trio section became quite romantic, a lovely song in F Major. The ensuing Adagio, a kind of lullaby, had a theme not so far from the famous Siciliano from a Bach flute sonata that Wilhelm Kempff used to play so lovingly. The Fuge a due soggetti clearly wants to honor Bach, initiated by a fiery second violin in alternate whole and half notes, followed by Norgaard’s ardent viola in more conventionally melodic terms. Though relatively brief, this movement compressed much of the “learned style” into an intense space that had the audience on its collective feet.

To conclude the first half of the concert, the Danish Quartet played Mendelssohn’s Capriccio in E Minor, Op. 81, No. 3 (1843). Marked by two dramatically opposite sections, Andante con moto and Allegro fugato, the piece demonstrates the kind of compression a natural contrapuntist like Mendelssohn could achieve in six minutes, especially when the creative fires were lit. Published posthumously along with three other string quartet miniatures, the Capriccio can certainly stand alone as a tour de force for any string quartet with the precision and the deft legerdemain to bring it off, as the Danes displayed.

Gilles Vonsattel resumed center stage for solo piano works by Shostakovich and Debussy. Shostakovich’s Op. 87 Prelude and Fugue in E Minor (1951) updates Bach, but in a voice dour, grim and idiosyncratically expressive. At moments the somber character assumes a directness reminiscent of plainchant, a quality equally immediate in the attacca – there was not a single clap from the audience after the Shostakovich. The Debussy prelude La fille aux cheveux de lin never fails to evoke Jennifer Jones in the film Portrait of Jenny. Each of the Debussy Preludes, Book I (1910), including the perkily ironic Minstrels and the stentorian Cathedrale engloutie, enjoyed a ravishing wash of colors from Vonsattel, studied, deliberate, and often, in La Cathedrales evocation of  Ys and its direct allusion to Wagner’s Ysolde, symphonic. 

Violinist Ian Swenson, pianist Gilles Vonsattel (Brian Benton)

We could well appreciate, if not Bach, the boulevardier influence Debussy would exert in Minstrels, a forecast of the jagged and acerbic accents in Poulenc and Gershwin. And sure enough, Vonsattel collaborated with violinist Ian Swensen in Gershwin’s 1926 Three Preludes in the transcriptions by Jascha Heifetz. The two jazzy – even boogie-woogie – outer preludes had their contrast in the eminently bluesy Second Prelude, with Swensen’s darkly moody elegy sung over Vonsattel’s crossed hands.

Finally, Benjamin Britten received some small homage for his own centennial in the Prelude and Fugue for 18 Strings. A highly sectionalized piece, the Adagio and Fugue often sounds like many a British string serenade, but with a mercurial vitality and learned character that distinguishes it from Elgar or Vaughan Williams. The double basses – Scott Pingen and Charles Chandler – had their day in the sun, playing first in octaves and later in agile stretti passages that asked their voices to crescendo. The textures and sound of the work, ranging from bitter-sweet elegy to puckish dances and even Wagnerian convulsion, savors the capacity of the various string groups to work in concert or in brilliant antiphons.

Violinist Arnaud Sussman served as primus inter pares, with Jorja Fleezanis a nimble shadow. By having each voice present the fugue subject, Allegro energico, Britten could evoke the layering of Bach and Ravel or the angular, modal harmony of Bartók. Just when we think Britten is about to conclude, he inserts another powerful series of motions, pizzicato and stretto, until the rush of the coda, when the fugal subject rules over all, and the audience could exhibit the full frenzy of its appreciation.

Music@Menlo continues through Aug. 10. For details, click here.

Gary Lemco, B.A. and M. A., SUNY Binghamton, NY; M.A. and PH.D., Georgia State University. Music studies with Carmine Arena, Philip Friedheim, Emanuel Winternitz, and Jean Casadesus. Host of The Music Treasury, WHRW-FM 1966-68 and 1970-75; guest critic on WQXR’s nationally distributed First Hearing, 1984-1999; writer, Musical America and Classical DisCDigest; contributor to Audiophile Audition and Classicalmusicguide.com. Member, Music Critics Association of North America. Author: Nietzsche as Educator; articles on Hemingway, Hawthorne, Bellow, Shelley, Fitzgerald, H. James, Orwell, D. H. Lawrence, Ellison. Specialist in reviewing reissues of great performers of the past. Hosts The Music Treasury on KZSU-FM, Stanford, streamed at kzsulive.stanford.edu Thursdays 8-10 p.m. (PST).

Britten’s Prelude and Fugue for 18 Strings in the Music@Menlo homage to Bach (Tristan Cook)