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Bowled Over at Trinity-Pawling

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Apr 13th, 2019

From left: Marc Daniel van Biemen, Vilém Kijonka, Alissa Firsova, Laure Ledantec, Fons Verspaandonk, Hein Wiedijk

Netherlands delivered a warm and lively program of Mozart, Brahms, and Dohnányi in Gardiner Hall. As chamber music musicians, they were on a six-week tour of the United States.

They opened with Mozart’s Trio in E-flat major for Clarinet, Violin,Viola, and Piano, K.498, called “Kegelstatt” by the publisher, for the purpose of popularizing the piece, as clarinetist Hein Wiedijk explained. The idea being that skittles (bowling), a popular Dutch pastime, would make the composition more marketable through the gaming allusion. To me, this apparent irrelevancy of the naming, had some rooting in the musicality of the piece, as each instrument challenges what another instrument acclaims and attempts to bowl over the aesthetic approach of another instrument. In the process, especially of the first Andante movement, there were unusual notes melding with delightful strange sounds, as well as slight wayward dissonant, fractal moments. Talk about lively conversation! Written in the summer of 1786, one of Mozart’s most productive summers, the work brims with Mozart’s impish, mischievous humor. Wiedijk on clarinet excelled as he heroically dominated the attempt of Vilém Kijonka on viola to displace the clarinet, while Alissa Firsova on piano offered sensible solutions that neither man (instrument) was interested in.

Johannes Brahms’ Trio for Horn, Violin, and Piano, Op. 40 is not often played; it requires a real master of the French horn, of which Fons Verspaandonk most certainly is. The first three movements have a melancholy cast that demands great virtuosity in dynamics and subtle modulation. At the time of composing this work in 1865, the valve horn had appeared and quickly replaced the French horn. It was as if Brahms set out to illustrate that discarding the French horn might be a terrible mistake. The first and third movements might be interpreted as requiem for that horn, as neglected possibilities are explored. There is intense competition for dominance between horn and violin played with intensity and gripping bravura by Annebeth Webb. The horn duels the virtuoso violin with softness instead of volume. The second movement Scherzo allows a comic edge for both violin and horn while the piano, smoothly like gurgling stream, attempts to smooth over different interpretations of rural life. The Finale is all reversal. All three instruments agree that the hunt is the thing that brings all elements of Nature to a rousing, joyful climax. They all play unified full tilt! Brahms was so pleased with this chamber piece that he wrote no chamber music for the next eight years.

At the end of the Brahms piece, I remarked that pianist Alissa had a Franz Liszt profile. Three rows down someone laughed, smiled, and turned to me. “I’ll tell her that, after the concert,” he said. This was the pianist’s brother, who was an artist, sketching the whole time during the concert!

In the United States Ernȍ Dohnányi remains overshadowed by his pupil Béla Bartók. The former composed in the German manner, while the latter’s strident patriotism took him to embrace folk music with a more aggressive modern edge. Among the former’s enduring works is Sextet for Clarinet, Violin, Horn, Viola, Cello, and Piano, Op. 37 composed in 1935. This is sometimes referred to as the “jolly sextet.” The first movement opens with piano and cello, smoothly played in good volume by Laure Ledantec, in agreement, yet other instruments begin to chime in and attempt to create elbow room. Alissa Firsova’s piano just really can’t take all the other instruments too seriously as she plows onward, despite noisy distractions, especially the challenge by the violin of Marc Daniel van Biemen. Everyone is passionate about their own instrument, narcissistic in the second movement, and then in the third movement they all become sentimental about their instrument, even  Hein Wiedijk's clarinet and Vilém Kijonka's viola. (We already knew that Fons Verspaandonk on horn was good at that.) The Finale is a howler. Beginning as some whacko American hoedown, it turns into blues, then jazz, then waltz, and finally a crazy howl of blended anarchy that they all can somehow agree upon instead of demarcating their own territory or sound. And it’s the piano that leads them on their crazy joy ride to some unforeseen apocalypse of universal music.

This concert by such expert musicians, jostling with joy, was well beyond anything I expected….