A taste of the surreal, and a "ghostly" presence

Musicians from Marlboro II at PCMS

4 minute read
Flashy and complex: Simon and Várjon.
Flashy and complex: Simon and Várjon.

The Musicians from Marlboro programmed and performed their program in an intriguing way, with an emphasis on varied instrumentation: two piano-string trios, two four-handed piano selections, and two vocal duets with piano accompaniment. Less obvious, but interwoven throughout, was a sense of the uncanny, what the postmodern philosopher of deconstruction Jacques Derrida called “spectral,” a difference and a trace within each piece that suggested something outside the real.

The concert began with Schubert’s “Notturno” trio, a single slow movement composed shortly before the still-young composer’s untimely death. The slowness and nobility of the music — which nevertheless has an Italianate operatic flavor, pizzicato and pianissimo segments, and a quiet fadeout at the end — is not quite what you would expect from Schubert, although it certainly bears his signature.

He truly represents the transition from the classical to the romantic era, and here the sonorities and the motivic infusion of love and death boldly foretold Brahms and even Wagner. A sense of the uncanny emerged from the not-quite-Schubert resonances as well as the fusion of funereal and amorous features. The trio of Várjon, Ross, and Speltz captured the paradoxical juxtaposition of moods, and their ensemble playing was virtually flawless.

A contemporary composer with a love of the past

György Kurtág is a modernist composer who, in his Trancriptions from Machaut to J.S. Bach and Games for Piano, played with tradition in such a way as to make it new. Both works alternate four-hand and two-hand piano selections, which in itself is unusual, and the way Kurtág approached the piano and its timbres gave the “transcriptions” a modern experimental quality. For instance, by a combination of touch, pedal, and other devices, the piano begins to sound like chimes, bells, or even a marimba, lending an eerie medieval quality to the sound.

The movements of both compositions include Kurtág’s “strange” transcriptions of Bach, as well as modern dissonance, dance rhythms, and French impressionistic pentatonic music in seemingly capricious alternation. Várjon and Simon, a husband-wife piano duo akin to Kurtág and his pianist wife Márta, worked together seamlessly to produce the varied effects. A surreal quality emerged from the juxtaposition of old and new and the unusual use of the piano duo, which is ordinarily called upon to produce flashy and complex effects.

The concert then proceeded in an entirely different musical direction — Dvořák’s and Brahms’s soprano/mezzo-soprano vocal duets. These have a folksy, nationalistic quality and could easily have been sung at someone’s country home in Austria or Moravia, respectively.

Shafer and Ringle are seasoned dramatic singers who have traveled well beyond the Marlboro Festival to varied concert and opera stages. They beautifully combined the finesse of chamber singing with a feigned amateurish sense of two sisters giving a musical offering to their nouveau riche friends and family. The artfulness of the music combined with an implicit scenario of a casually arranged situation afforded a postmodern deconstruction of the formal art song.

Beethoven’s “Ghost”

The finale rounded off the evening’s diversity, as Várjon, Ross, and Speltz offered a staple of the chamber repertoire: Beethoven’s Piano Trio in D Major, the so-called “Ghost” trio. Its otherworldly and unsettling slow movement summed up the surreal implications of the whole concert. Here we have quintessential Beethoven, with intensity, surprise, and repetition that, in the end, achieves coherence. Typically, the melodic turns are emphasized, highlighting the lyricism and continuity of the music. However, this trio performed it in a strictly linear fashion, at a faster-than-usual tempo, giving the final movement earthshaking intensity.

By hallowed tradition, Marlboro musicians live together and “flirt” with a composition for weeks before even deciding to perform it. In this concert, they clearly had become familiar enough with the music to take some chances and allow unconscious forces to surround and inform the disciplined rendering of the notes in the score. This can be a risky business — leading to exaggeration, distortion, and over-personalization. But these consummate musicians artfully employed the spectral appearance of otherwise hidden connotations to achieve a postmodern surrealism which, rather than disturbing the composers’ intentions, added to the interest and intrigue of the works.

For Tom Purdom's review of this concert and two others, click here.

What, When, Where

Philadelphia Chamber Music Society presents Musicians from Marlboro II. February 12, 2015 at the Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets, Philadelphia. 215-569-8080 or www.pcmsconcerts.org.

Sarah Shafer, soprano; Rebecca Ringle, mezzo-soprano; Dénes Várjon, piano; Izabella Simon, piano; Michelle Ross, violin; Brook Speltz, cello. Schubert: Adagio in E-flat Major (Notturno), D. 897; Kurtág: Transcriptions from Machaut to J.S. Bach for Four-Hands Piano [Selections]; Kurtág: Games for Piano for Four-Hands Piano [Selections]; Dvořák: Moravské dvojzpěvy [Moravian Duets], Op. 20; Brahms: Vier Duette, Op. 61; Beethoven: Piano Trio in D Major, Op. 70, No. 1, “Ghost”

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