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Music from the Heart

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Nov 16th, 2019

From left: Zongheng Zhang, Helen Wu, Marka Gustavsson, Nicholas Scheel

Friday night at 8 pm at the László Bitó Conservatory Building three of Marka Gustavsson’s students celebrated their teacher’s birthday with a short recital. But what a recital! This performance was made possible in part through a generous bequest from Stanley Kasparek in support of Czech music.

Zongheng Zhang on violin, Nicholas Scheel on cello, and Helen Wu on piano opened with Bohuslav Martinů’s Piano Trio No 1, H.193, Cinq Pièces Brevès. Completed in 1930 in less than a week, the cello line is sometimes unearthly, the piano forcefully rhythmic yet with unpredictable flexibility, and at times a furious and exultant violin line. Both piano and violin sounded at the edge of madness. There’s a sudden jazz riff in the middle of medieval polyphonic texture while there appeared to be no specific theme to anchor this wonderful music that wandered into dissonance and yet each movement somehow concluded in a major chord. This was fantastic wizardry produced in a few days during a three-year period wherein Martinů composed twenty-two chamber music works and forged his signature style. This was genius set loose as it was performed with such passionate zest!

Frank Bridge (Benjamin Britten’s teacher) is currently undergoing a revival. Joined by Gustavsson on viola, they played Bridge’s Phantasie for Piano Quartet in F sharp minor, H. 94. In contrast, here was a tonal work which created long lines of lyric beauty that resonated in one’s memory. This 1910 piece sounded Proustian, delving into happy memories with unfettered late Romanticism. Sometimes a refrain was passed from violin to cello to viola as a round of friendship. While strings flowed in upbeat, the piano clung to downbeat. Each instrument was allowed a short solo to excel in, yet it was the unity of players that forged a remarkable synthesis. Wu, who introduced the work, hinted that this piece was so difficult to achieve unified effect that they had rehearsed it many times.

Bedřich Smetana’s Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 15 is generally considered to be Smetana’s first major work. It was composed in memory of his daughter, Bedřiška, nicknamed Fritzi because she spoke German as well as Czech at two and could sing well at three and play the piano at four, died September 6, 1855, a year after another young daughter died. In his diary Smetana wrote “Nothing can replace Fritzi, the angel whom death has stolen from us.” It took two months of feverish work to produce this harrowing masterpiece. When performed in public the following year, the work was harshly attacked by critics. The only other time it was ever performed in Smetana’s lifetime was for a visit by Franz Liszt, who embraced Smetana and congratulated his wife for encouraging this astonishing masterpiece.

The first two movements present the chromatic descent of a fifth with haunting, even shattering effect. I felt my body give way, yet I was transfixed. Here was grief amid the depiction of man going mad. Zhang’s violin was the voice of despair and unspeakable loss. In the second movement there was some relief in the depiction of the happy recollection of a child at play, yet this was interrupted by a solemn dirge march of frightening portent. The concluding Finale restlessly seizes wisps of consolation and resolve to go on living life with a defiant energy amid abrupt rhythms that sound like a recording of a child’s fading heartbeat. Despite the onslaught of despair and doubt, the work resolves in a healing reversal—the determination to find new music in the song of life.

Zhang played with such intense emotion that I felt disorientated, shattered. Here was music that offered the macabre shout of death and obstinate celebration of life. I felt extraordinarily fortunate to be alive, retuning to my four-year-old son. While this was a short concert of about seventy-five minutes, this may have been my favorite concert of the whole year.