Bach Is Revisited With French Flair In Menlo Concert

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By Gary Lemco

The Gallic response to J.S. Bach’s polyphony provided the theme for Music@Menlo‘s Concert Program VI: “French Connections,” a splendid assemblage of works composed 1725-1928 and performed by an equally diverse group of musicians at The Center for Performing Arts on Saturday, Aug. 3. The program meant to remind us that, besides the strictures of the polyphonic procedures in Bach, an astonishing degree of lyrical elegance and refined color could be gleaned, to which French musicians of succeeding generations gravitated with especial elan.

Pianist Wu Han plays Bach in a program designed to showcase French connections. Music @ Menlo 2013 (Brian Benton)
Pianist Wu Han. Bach’s French Suite No. 5. (Brian Benton)

The colorful program opened with pianist Wu Han‘s sterling rendition of Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G Major, S.816. Ms. Han presented the light hand and the silken touch for this piece, set as a collection of seven “gallant” dance movements associated with the royal court at Anhalt-Cöthen, where Bach served Prince Leopold.

After a brisk Allemande, Han’s vivacious Courante enjoyed the flurries of a toccata whose non-legato and fluidly deft ornaments might well have been rendered by Glenn Gould. The Sarabande, with its accent on the second beat, merely intimated its Latin origins. Han rendered the Gavotte in a French mode, a delicately fleet marcato that no less displayed her capacity for legato effects. The Bourrée’s quick runs easily pointed to the late variations in the Brahms Op. 24 set to Handel’s theme. The Loure, set as an antiphon, gently suggested its ‘bagpipe’ ancestry. The alternately galloping and cantering final dance, the Gigue, retained a transparent, facile grace whose infectious charm had the full house cheering for Han, both in her virtuoso persona and as mistress of ceremonies for the entire Menlo Festival.

Violinist Kristin Lee, harpist Bridget Kibbey. (Brian Benton)
Violinist Kristin Lee, harpist Bridget Kibbey. (Brian Benton)

With the ensuing Saint-Saëns Fantaisie in A for Violin and Harp, Op. 124 (1907), Bridget Kibbey made the first of three veritable whirlwind and gossamer impressions on her avid audience. Here, she accompanied violinist Kristin Lee in a piece that adheres to Classical precision and symmetrical lines even as it applies the Schubert-Liszt model of the one-movement work that sub-divides into four distinct sections. Elegant and exotic at once, the ostinato riffs allowed harpist Kibbey any number of diaphanous runs and glissandi, while the violin sang its own melodies or displayed a deft virtuosity, as in the Scherzino, in which spiccato and sliding effects predominated. The combination of grace and stately bravura, so typical of Saint-Saëns, concluded with his capacity to invoke an orison or chorale-quality into the melodic mix between his two principals, eminently charming.

Flutist Tara Helen O'Connor, violist Paul Neubauer, harpist Bridget Kibbey. (Brian Benton)
Tara Helen O’Connor, Paul Neubauer, Kibbey. (Brian Benton)

Debussy’s exotic Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp (1915) took the sonorous concept a step further, with principal Kibbey finding eloquent collaborators in flutist Tara Helen O’Connor and violist Paul Neubauer. The Sonata, one of a projected set of six Debussy never lived to complete, makes its most immediate effect in the vibrancy and uniqueness of its instrumental colors.

The quality of effects becomes deliberately elusive, a series of pastels and plastic water-colors that, like its sonorous model, The Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, melts the range and timbres of the individual instruments into each other. Besides the sheer variety of tone-colors, the metric design of the movements keeps shifting, rendering each of the movements – Pastorale, Interlude et Finale – into a mesmeric dreamscape or hallucinatory gauze likely akin to our having read passages from Stéphane Mallarmé or Pierre Louys. The Tempo di minuetto second movement convinced us that Mallarmé’s wayward Faun – in the form of O’Connor’s hearty flute – had found some (Eastern) social graces. The last movement, while paying homage to the Baroque clavecinistes whom Debussy admired for their purity and economy, engaged us with rhythmic audacities and subtle color shifts whose most immediate benefactor must have been the young Bartók.

O'Connor, Lee, Kibbey, Atapine, Neubauer (Brian Benton)
O’Connor, Lee, Kibbey, Atapine, Neubauer (Brian Benton)

Marcel Tournier‘s four-movement Suite for Flute, Harp and Strings, Op. 34 (1928), came to the concert program with the most logical and legitimate credentials: the 1917 premiere of the Debussy Sonata, which featured harpist Pierre Jamet (1893-1991), inspired that musician and pedagogue to commission the Tournier work for Jamet’s chamber ensemble, the Quintette Instrumental de Paris. Cellist Dmitri Atapine and violinist Kristen Lee joined our Debussy ensemble players for a haunted, crepuscular realization of the first movement, Soir, with its intimation of Debussy’s La Mer. The ensuing Danse gave O’Connor more moments in the sun; the colors of the Lied sounded almost Catalan in the spirit we associate with Pablo Casals. The playful antics of Fête permitted each of the principals an exercise of bravura, but certainly we had our collective ears attuned to the colloquies of Kibbey’s harp and O’Connor’s flute, each a ravishing master of her instrumental palette, which Tournier had exploited with aplomb.

Sussmann, Swenson,  Vonsattel, Finckel, O'Neill (Diana Lake)
Sussmann, Swenson, Vonsattel, Finckel, O’Neill (Diana Lake)

If luminous grace and elegance of line in Bach served as the aegis for the concert’s first half, then unbridled (Wagnerian) passion reigned for the second half tour de force and pièce de scandale, César Franck’s massive Piano Quintet in F Minor (1879), written under the spell of Franck’s infatuation with Augusta Holmes, likely his mistress. If Bach perpetually served Franck’s formal principles and expressivity, it is the Bach of the darker chorale-preludes and religious passions that influences this brooding, often convulsive chamber work. The ensemble of superbly synchronized musicians – Arnaud Sussmann and Ian Swensen, violins; Richard O’Neill, viola; David Finckel, cello; and Gilles Vonsattel, piano – played with lucid panache and muscular ferocity, that paradox of the Franck style. Even the through-composed – and cyclic – opening motif is marked “tema ma con passione,” and it weaves its combination of heat and menace throughout the work.

Pianist Vonsattel proved a master at maintaining tonal and sonorous balance in the course of this darkly obsessive piece, whose hothouse emotions virtually exhaust the power of traditional chromaticism to hold them accountable to tonality.

Violinist Sussmann set the liquid tone from the outset, his lean vocalism supported by a very fast vibrato. The first movement alternated rhapsodic ardor of the dotted rhythmic cell with gentle lyricism, moving from D-flat Major in the keyboard to the A-flat Major of the violin. Even though the music conforms to traditional sonata-form, the Lisztian shifts in moods, from idyllic to diabolically tempestuous, makes “formality” (or propriety) the least of our conscious thoughts. The Lento, con molto sentimento second movement offered a Lied as a consolation – it was Nadia Boulanger who once remarked that this piece contains more fff and ppp markings than any other chamber music work – but the slithery chromatics continue to add unease to the illusion of serenity.

The Finale, typical of Franck’s fascination with preserving a theme’s intrinsic elements and recasting them – in the manner of Beethoven, Schumann and Liszt – redesigns the slow movement in augmented figures and the “passionate theme” so that the alchemy achieves a grand apotheosis, Franck’s chamber music equivalent of Tristan und Isolde. None of these personal or musical manifestations was lost in this towering performance, with ardent cello playing from David Finckel, who could be seen palpably savoring the other musicians’ respective lines. The emotional eddies and whirlpools evoked by this avid ensemble provoked an equally ecstatic response from the Menlo audience, who if they did not cry “Vive la France” could well have chanted “Vive l’amour!”

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

For other reviews of this summer’s Music@Menlo concerts,  click here and 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).