Phillip T Young Recital Hall
July 28, 2012
According to Vincent d'Indy, "our French sense of proportion...was able to temper the extravagance of the Wagnerian spirit."
Well, perhaps. Of course, if one wishes to point a finger at extravagance in French music, one need go no further than some of Berlioz's monumental scores, or the Ode Triomphale of Augusta Holmès, scored for a chorus of 900 and an orchestra of 300.
Leaving such excesses to one side, there were still French composers for whom the influence of Wagner was less than easy to ignore.
One such was Ernest Chausson, whose bizarre death at the age of 44 from a cycling accident is probably the best-known thing about him.
In the late 1880s, when in his mid-thirties, Chausson was explicitly trying to rid himself of "the red spectre of Wagner which does not let go of me."
The two factors which seemed to have enabled him to perform this exorcism were the harmonic influence of his friend Claude Debussy and a newly-discovered enthusiasm for the Classical French tradition of Rameau and Couperin - this latter frequently evident from his naming of movements and, indeed, in the carefully-chosen title of his Op.21: Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet; the term "Concert", rather than concerto, was a deliberate salute to 18th-century practise and the work is most definitely not a sextet.
This rarely-heard work provided the culmination of Saturday night's Victoria Summer Music Festival, as William Preucil and Arthur Rowe were joined by the Emily Carr String Quartet for a performance which swept all before it.
Chausson may have freed himself from Wagner's harmonic influence, but the piece, for most of its length, nonetheless has an intensity which would not seem out of place at Bayreuth, were it not for the inarguable Frenchness of the music.
The opening movement is the longest and arguably somewhat discursive in nature, but a good performance - and this was so much more than that - will suspend the audience's disbelief and grip like a vice, as it did on Saturday. Preucil and Rowe displayed the requisite virtuosity and the Emily Carrs a superb unanimity of tone colours: their first entry sounded like the four strings of one enormous instrument. In my notes I noted the "lush and determined" nature of the playing, a remark by which, oxymoronic though it may seem, I stand.
The second movement Sicilienne (another backwards reference) provides a brief interlude in the intensity and sounded gorgeous. The gloriously played Grave progressed from its languorous introduction to an almost fierce climax before the finale took off like a rocket on Bastille Day.
The finale does tend a little to the bombastic - in a very French way, of course - but when played at this level, all misgivings tend to dissolve like the early morning mist.
Formidable. (To be read with a French accent, if you please.)
Rheinhold Glière - his birth name was actually Glier, but he changed the spelling in his mid-twenties - is usually considered a Russian composer, but the tide of modern history means that we should now count him as Ukrainian, as he was born and educated in Kiev.
Nobody would call Glière a great composer and there are probably few music-lovers who could even name a single work.
I suspect, though, that the members of Saturday's audience will not quickly forget his Duos for Violin and Cello - certainly not the four (chosen from a set of eight) with which Preucil and Eric Kim opened the programme.
The opening prelude was plaintive, with a decidedly Russian melancholy; the gavotte an excellent pastiche, with a rustic central trio, complete with drones; the cradle song was beautifully simple - and simply beautiful. The energetic scherzo was full of life and sparklingly syncopated.
Not great music, to be sure, but while it was being played it seemed as if it was.
It only took a bar or two of the introduction to Beethoven's Cello Sonata, Op.69 to remind us of what truly great music sounds like.
Eric Kim imbued his opening statement with a fiery nobility, which pervaded the entire first movement; he and Rowe played both forcefully and with great delicacy, while never allowing tone production to suffer.
The second movement scherzo was energetically playful, with some exquisite double-stopping from Kim in the trio. The slow movement is more an introduction - albeit a sublime one - to the finale, which was brilliantly exuberant.
A tremendous performance, which left at least one listener wondering why we don't hear it - and its companion sonatas - more frequently.
All in all marvellous evening.