I was fortunate to be able to catch the season-opening program of Byron Schenkman & Friends — already in their 4th season! — at the end of an unusually packed weekend.
What a pleasurable way to regain focus: here was an intelligently programmed and charmingly presented concert that mixed masterworks with some fascinating novelties.
Most of all, it was filled with terrific music-making by colleagues whose enjoyment and passion drew the audience in. There’s always a feeling at a Byron Schenkman & Friends performance that it’s not merely about “presenting” a pre-packaged menu: it’s about sharing that experience as intimately as possible, drawing on the energy and involvement of the listeners — basically, in other words, the chamber music ideal.
Schenkman built his program around the ties that bind J.S. Bach and the Mendelssohn family — not only Felix, whose advocacy of the Thomas Cantor through his landmark revival of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 is a famous landmark of Bach reception, but older sister Fanny as well.
Schenkman pointed out that Fanny helped to prepare that performance of the St. Matthew Passion, and her reverence for Bach informed her own musical composition. While still in her cradle, he remarked, Fanny was lovingly described in a letter as wiggling what her prescient mother sensed were destined to be “Bach-fugue-playing fingers.”
The first half of the program was framed with tasteful accounts of Bach works as they may have been revived at a salon gathering chez Mendelssohn (say, while the siblings were growing up, or later, at Felix’s beautiful home in Leipzig).
With Schenkman at the keyboard (the Steinway typically used by Seattle Chamber Music Society for programs in Nordstrom Recital Hall, where the concert was held), Seattle Symphony principal violist Susan Gulkis Assadi played an arrangement for her instrument of the G major Sonata BWV 1027 that was redolent with color and expressivity.
Later came a version of the Concerto in F minor (BWV 1056) for piano and string quartet (with Gulkis Assadi joined by violinists Ingrid Matthews and Liza Zurlinden and cellist Geoffrey Dean), its haunting middle-movement melody — familiar from recycling elsewhere in Bach’s work — an especially effective foil to the restless turbulence surrounding it.
Schenkman eloquently introduced the work of Fanny Mendelssohn, describing her social position as a woman in an assimilated Jewish family in Biedermeier-era Germany — and the constraints to pursuing a composing career this entailed.
And the sense of palpable loss came through most unmistakably in the two selections of her work that were programmed: a Fantasy in G minor for cello and piano, with its genuinely memorable melodic pathos (Schenkman here joined by Dean), and one of her wordless Songs for the Piano, “Il Saltarello romano” (Op. 6, no. 4), one of the few pieces she managed to publish in her name.
But several pieces, according to Schenkman, she was able to publish only under her brother’s name. He referred to Felix’s well-known friendship with Queen Victoria, who once asked him to play her favorite number from his Songs without Words — whereupon he reportedly confessed that it was actually not his, but the work of his sister.
The second half of the program offered a particularly rousing account of a late-period masterpiece by Felix Mendelssohn — and one of the highlights of the 19th-century literature — the C minor Piano Trio, Op. 66. It’s the last chamber piece the composer managed to have published with his approval (in 1846) before his untimely death in 1847– less than a half-year after the devastating loss of his beloved Fanny.
Zurlinden, Dean, and Schenkman together homed in on the Romantic passions and extremes of this marvelous score — the opening shared something of the atmospheric suspense of the much earlier Hebrides Overture — allowing the consoling second theme to expand and blossom at leisure.
I also admired the refinement of tonal balances between the strings and Schenkman’s piano textures. The Bach connection came through with noble effect in the finale, with the emergence of the quasi-chorale — beautifully shaped by the players — against an agitated backdrop (an idea Brahms would later take up in his Third Piano Quartet).
Next up — Music for the Sun King — is a program devoted to one of Schenkman’s special loves: the French Baroque.
(c)2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.