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Conservative Music in Vienna Before Hitler

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Aug 12th, 2019

From left: Jesse Mills, Aaron Boyd, Rieko Aizawa, Raman Ramakrishnan

Program Five of Bard College’s Summerscape focused on Viennese conservative musicians. According to the Preconcert lecture in Olin Hall by Kevin C. Karnes, not even conservative Jewish musicians were able to keep teaching jobs at German or Austrian universities if a Jewish grandmother or grandfather was discovered in one’s genealogy.

The program was bracketed with pieces by Erich Wolfgang Korngold when about 21 and then 43. Korngold’s early contribution to music for a Shakespearean play opened the program. Much Ado About Nothing Suite, Op. 11 alternated between romance and comedy in four scenes. My favorite was “Dogberry and Verges: The March of the Night Watchman” which fir this comic episode like a glove.

Gilles Vonsattel emerged to play two of Walter Braunfels Preludes (No, 5 & 7). These were pleasant meditative rambles. Vonsattel was far more appreciated by the audience when he Franz Schmidt’s 1938 Toccata, for the left hand alone with seemingly effortless panache. The audience was clearly disappointed that he left the stage.

Josef Labor’s 1900 Piano Quintet conjured an unusual palette of delicately refined sound. What was both amazing and astonishing about this work was that it was composed by a man who was blind from early childhood. Aaron Boyd’s first violin dominated the first movement with arresting eloquence while Nuno Antunes on clarinet ably handled the many high Brahms-like clarinet note runs in the third movement. Danny Driver on piano who, along with Nicholas Canellakis on cello, delivered the rhythmic lyric line as a tidal undertow carried us through this pleasant and polite conversation of instruments which conjured witty harmonies and subtle transitions to new heights accompanied by Marka Gustavsson’s viola to round out the whole to near-symphonic moments, especially in the Finale.

The sense of color and propulsive rhythm conjured in my mind a parallel story in America with ex-slave Jazz pianist Blind Tom who was buried in an unmarked Brooklyn grave, although memorialized as a great jazz pianist by Willa Cather in My Ántonia (1918). (Tom’s original compositions are re-created in a Newport Classics disk.) Although blind, Labor was a vital mentor and performer among the elite in Vienna. The refinement of Labor’s discriminating ear inhabits the art for art’s sake reserved esthetic of balanced and nuanced textures at a Platonic salon of the hereafter.

Intermission invited the audience to meditate on what they had just heard. Orion Weiss appeared to play Ernst von Dohnányi’s charming Pastorale on a Hungarian Christmas Tune (1920) which concluded with elegant Viennese lift. This was Dohnányi’s most popular bagatelle.

Baritone Tyler Duncan sang, accompanied by Erika Switzer on piano, with impressive feeling and immaculate diction four of Othmar Schoeck’s leider. Duncan’s voice possessed a charismatic radiance, so much so that the audience demanded two graceful bows.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Suite, Op. 23, (1930) was written for pianist Paul Wittgenstein (brother of philosopher Ludwig) who had lost his right arm in World War I. Here the left-hand piano work was far more mature than Korngold’s 1923 Piano Concerto in C-sharp, for the left hand; Rieko Aizawa led with her assured left hand without calling attention to it.  While there was more atmosphere than content to the lengthy portrayal of a stormy two nights with fierce wind and seemingly relentless rain (string pizzicato), the performance by the Horszowski Trio with violinist Aaron Boyd was immediate, energetic, unified, and in the optimistic reversal Rondo-Finale it achieved a mighty symphonic resonance beyond what one might think a quintet might achieve. Jesse Mills on violin was particularly piquant in the ambiently grotesque third movement while Boyd’s violin challenged the august fury of Raman Ramakrishnan’s floor-lifting cello in the Rondo-Finale where Aizawa’s piano returned with such clout that one might swear she was playing with two hands. The ecstatic audience demanded three bows.

One of the virtues of this year’s Summerscape program is to savor rare performances of interesting Viennese works that are not performed in this country. This festival will continue to supply such surprises.