Feature Review: Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center – English Musical Renaissance 1900-1930 (3)

Written by: David M. Rice


Sonata No.3 for Violin and Piano


Suite for Viola and Piano – Romance

Vaughan Williams

The House of Life – Silent Noon


Pleading, Op.48


Three Songs of William Blake – Dream Valley


My Heart is Like a Singing Bird


My True Love Hath My Heart


Three Songs for Mezzo-Soprano, Viola and Piano: Far, Far From Each Other; Where Is It That Our Soul Doth Go?; Music When Soft Voices Die

Rebecca Clarke

The Cloths of Heaven; The Seal Man


Twelve Songs of Humbert Wolfe, Op.48 – Betelgeuse; Now in These Fairylands


Phantasie Trio in C minor for Piano, Violin and Cello

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center:

Susanne Mentzer (mezzo-soprano)

Anne-Marie McDermott (piano)

Craig Rutenberg (piano)

Ani Kavafian (violin)

Paul Neubauer (viola)

Efe Baltacigil (cello)

Alice Tully Hall, New York City

Friday, 23 February, 2007

This third concert in the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s “An English Musical Renaissance, 1900-1930” winter festival offered the most intimate of the four festival programmes. Most of the evening’s selections were for only two musicians, and there were none for more than three. The concert had much of the character of a vocal recital, as mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer performed twelve songs by eight composers – five songs before the interval and seven afterward.

The programme opened with a late work of Delius, his Third Violin Sonata, performed by violinist Ani Kavafian and pianist Anne-Marie McDermott. Kavafian’s playing tended to be expressive rather than flashy, bringing out the rather sweet and gentle character of the opening movement (marked “Slow”) and of the piece as a whole. The syncopated Andante scherzando was breezy and playful in its outer sections, with a slower, more serious interlude that included a piano solo impressively played by McDermott. The finale began in a slow tempo (Lento) with a rather solemn piano solo, and featured a rising violin theme before the tempo picked up (Con moto). Here Kavafian’s playing was quite impassioned, with the movement’s opening phrase returning and dying out at the Sonata’s end.

Next was a movement from Benjamin Dale’s Suite for Viola and Piano, with McDermott this time ably accompanying violist Paul Neubauer. This delightful ‘Romance’ began with strong piano chords, kept sounding to create a tone cluster effect, with Neubauer producing a warm, deep tone in the opening section, rising to a higher register as the piano initiated a new rhythmic pattern, and becoming more expressive in the dance-like central episode. Material from the beginning of the movement returned at the end, completing its arch-like structure.

The most interesting portion of the programme was Susanne Mentzer’s very generous – and very well-sung – cross-section of early-twentieth-century English songs. She included examples by both well-known and lesser-known composers, setting texts by such poets as Sidney, Shelley, Blake, Arnold, Yeats, Masefield, and both Dante and Christina Rossetti. Her excellent accompanist was Craig Rutenberg.

Among the poetic themes interwoven in the five songs that preceded the interval were: the beauty of nature; memory, dreams and longing; and the heart as the symbol of love. In Ralph Vaughan Williams’s sensual ‘Silent Noon’, Mentzer’s rendition of the words “Your eyes speak peace” set the scene for her expressive account of the beautiful and tranquil landscape that surrounds the lovers in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem. In Edward Elgar’s “Pleading”, the text by Arthur Leslie Salmon analogises images of nature – hills, dusk and fallen leaves – to human dreams and longing, elements also present in Roger Quilter’s ‘Dream Valley’, one of his three settings of poems by William Blake. Mentzer brought her beautiful voice and her intelligent artistry to these songs, admirably capturing their tranquil character – which also was reflected in Rutenberg’s sensitive playing of the soft postlude to the Quilter song. Mentzer’s vocalisation became more florid in Hubert Parry’s “My Heart is Like a Singing Bird”, in which poet Christina Georgina Rossetti invoked beautiful images of both natural and human creation to express the intensity of amorous emotions, and in John Ireland’s setting of Sir Philip Sidney’s “My True Love Hath My Heart”, her impassioned singing brought the first half of the concert to a dramatic close.

After the interval, Neubauer joined Mentzer and Rutenberg for Frank Bridge’s “Three Songs of William Blake”. The impact of the viola’s sonority was felt immediately as Neubauer and Rutenberg played the prelude to ‘Far, Far from Each Other’, a Matthew Arnold text that personifies Nature as a source of comfort to separated lovers. The text of ‘Where Is It That Our Soul Doth Go?’, which was adapted by Kate Freiligrath Kroeker from a Heine poem, raises one of the classic and persistent questions that philosophers have debated for centuries, but it suggests no answer. Mentzer sang the song with appropriate gravity, delivering the last line forcefully and giving way to the instrumental postlude that ended with a viola chord and a series of detached piano notes. The third song, set to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Music When Soft Voices Die’, begins in the viola’s low register. Mentzer employed a rather serious tone as she and Neubauer exchanged thematic material, with the viola trailing the voice to accent each verse whilst overlapping the ensuing one. Rutenberg had less to do in this song, but he played the piano’s soft accompaniment well.

Mentzer continued with two songs by Rebecca Clarke, a pioneering woman composer and musician who was the first female accepted as a composition student at the Royal Academy of Music in London. The touching “Cloths of Heaven”, set to a text by William Butler Yeats, was sung and played with subdued emotions by Mentzer and Rutenberg. Clarke’s setting of John Masefield’s “The Seal Man” began with a prelude that juxtaposed the extremes of the piano’s range. As Mentzer delivered the strange narrative in semi-spoken tones, the piano took an active role in telling the unfolding story, particularly in accenting Masefield’s moon-related imagery by playing arpeggios to accompany the initial mention of “moonlight” (shades of Beethoven?) and strongly underscoring “the moon made a track upon the sea … like a flame”. As the tale reached its tragic conclusion, the vocal line became chromatic and low, with Rutenberg playing twittering figures in the right hand and tolling ones in the left.

Mentzer concluded her portion of the programme with two selections from “Twelve Songs of Humbert Wolfe” by Gustav Holst. ‘Betelgeuse’ is about static phenomena, and the music, beginning with the lengthy, slow and solemn prelude, was appropriate. Intervals were small and chords simple, including the slow and soft ones that ended the song. Mentzer concluded with a subdued yet passionate rendition of ‘Now in These Fairylands’, which also employed a very simple piano accompaniment and faded away quietly at the end.

Mentzer’s outstanding performance made a strong case for increasing American audiences’ exposure to the vocal compositions of these and other English composers of this period. It also leads this reviewer to wonder whether these works have been neglected on their home ground as well. [Amost certainly! – Ed.]

The programme concluded with Bridge’s Phantasie Trio, with cellist Efe Baltacigil joining McDermott and Kavafian. This piece was a first-prize-winner in the 1907 composition contest instituted by Walter Wilson Cobbett, an amateur musician and enthusiastic patron of the arts, to promote the “phantasy” – an updated revival of the sixteenth-century form of the ”fantasia” or “fancy” featuring several continuous, cyclically constructed sections. Bridge’s trio begins with a brief introduction, then a lovely, low violin theme was repeated by the cello and then played as a violin-cello duet – all to a rumbling piano accompaniment. The piano soon asserted itself with loud chords and then several melodic passages, both solo and accompanied by the strings, with the cello providing the bass line. Overlapping figures in the cello and violin ended the first section, and the second started with a lyrical cello solo, beautifully played by Baltacigil. The violin took up this melody, and the piano quickly went from being a mere accompanist to an equal partner with the strings, but an extended cello passage soon took centre-stage again.

In the central scherzo, the piano and pizzicato violin and cello played a jaunty melody, with the strings following the piano’s lead as its chords got bigger and bigger but ultimately quietened in a piano solo that ended the section. The solo cello melody heard earlier was reprised in the penultimate section, now echoed by the violin, before the work came full circle with a recapitulation of material from its opening section and a coda that ended with a flourish that had Kavafian all but springing from her chair.

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