The work that graced the second half of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival Concert on Aug. 16 was such a curiosity that nobody in the Lensic would likely have imagined who had composed it if they had not known in advance. At least the answer wouldn’t have dawned on them through the first two of its four sprawling movements, after which hints started to accumulate that pointed to Béla Bartók.
Bartók has one of the most distinct profiles in classical music, usually recognizable right away through his rhythmic vehemence, tightly coiled melodies, or mysterious instrumental sounds. But composers never start where they end up, and his Piano Quintet, which was the piece that Anne-Marie McDermott and the Miami String Quartet played so capably, falls very near to the great Hungarian composer’s beginnings. When he composed it, in 1903-1904, he was embarking on a career as a concert pianist, but there were distractions. He was busily composing, although he had not yet developed a distinct expressive voice; and just as he was completing this piece, he got swept up in enthusiasm for collecting folk songs. That would become one of the defining pursuits of his life, and it would spark the individuality of his style as a composer.
The Piano Quintet has something to do with Brahms in its solidity, and even more to do with Liszt in certain bravado turns of phrase. Both of those composers harbored a fondness for “the Hungarian style,” a pop-classical crossover of that time; think of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies. Liszt made much of his presumed Hungarian origins, although in truth he was born in a town that is today in Austria (though it was then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire), grew up in a German-speaking household, felt more comfortable writing in French, and possessed practically no knowledge of the Hungarian tongue. He nonetheless claimed Hungarian essence, which proved a smart marketing move in a Europe that was fascinated by Romantic exoticism. The Hungarians took it as a compliment, and they promoted Liszt as a musical exemplar in their own nation. The first recital Bartók played in 1901 as a new student at the Royal National Academy of Music in Budapest (established by Liszt and later renamed the Franz Liszt Academy of Music) spotlighted Liszt’s B-minor Sonata, and his graduation recital, in May 1903, featured the same composer’s Rhapsodie espagnole.
The musicians seemed well-matched and uniformly devoted to making the case for this rarely visited work. The Miami String Quartet can be a bit rough-and-tumble in its approach, but the Bartók Piano Quintet doesn’t make great demands in the subtlety department. Apart from occasional shrillness from the first violin, the group offered a broad but consistent reading that gave free rein to thick vibratos, intense bowing, and emphatic dynamics. McDermott held up her side of the bargain in admirable fashion, playing deep in the keys with her accustomed precision of touch, rock-solid tone, and clarity of phrasing. She rose to the occasion for soloistic moments but mostly sought unostentatious chamber-music balance that made the piece come across as an actual quintet rather than a competition between piano and strings. The first movement includes some passages of gorgeous rippling keyboard figuration of which Bartók must have been proud; McDermott rendered them like limpid surges from an elegantly designed fountain.
The first movement seemed a series of interesting odds and ends that kept piling up, ultimately reaching a blustery passage that suggested much ado about rather little. The second movement scherzo employs quick alternations of duple and triple rhythms that, in retrospect, seem to point to a Bartókian fingerprint, but it also includes (in its Trio section) an upward-sweeping yodel that could have been plucked from Dvoˇrák. Bartók’s Magyar core begins to reveal itself more in the third movement, a meandering Adagio that for a while plants itself in a Budapest café. Here, McDermott plumbed the possibilities of the piano as cimbalom and the string players focused more on gestures of passion. The cimbalom style made a pleasing appearance again in the finale, duetting in sequence with cello, viola, and second violin. That was a quickly passing interlude in a concluding movement that was mostly given over to ideas structured in the slow-fast pairs of phrases that were elemental to “the Hungarian style.” Bartók’s Piano Quintet runs some 40 minutes that don’t really cohere, but it does display one of the 20th century’s most essential chamber composers on the verge of stepping into his future.
On Aug. 18, McDermott appeared in another festival concert — an impressive all-Bach solo recital in the more intimate setting of St. Francis Auditorium. She has recorded a swath of repertoire, her most recent release being a vibrant two-CD set (on the Bridge label) of Haydn sonatas and concertos; for one of the latter (in G major) the modern composer Charles Wuorinen penned puckish cadenzas as icing for the cake. At the outset of her discography, however, stands a Bach disc that contains several of that composer’s Partitas and Suites, a recording that serves as a firm foundation for her ensuing work and became rather a touchstone in her public identity as a pianist. Two of the pieces on that disc figured in her festival recital, the A-minor English Suite and the C-minor Partita.
She rendered the English Suite virtuosically, with tempos that, in the fast movements, were at least fleet. The immense opening Prelude raced along as a giddy two-part invention, and the concluding gigue left one downright dizzy. The recordings of Glenn Gould are a defining influence for many modern pianists who turn their attention to Bach, and I suspect that McDermott is among their admirers — or at least that she has found them stimulating. Her playing reflects something of his hyper-clarity as well as an interpretative approach in which inner lines take on a vibrant life that may not appear obvious from the score. Her articulation was etched as if by an X-Acto Knife; there was never the slightest doubt about what she wished to convey. For all its unflagging energy, there was also a great deal of more understated beauty in this reading, nowhere more than in the rustic earthiness of the Bourrée II.
Her approach in the Partita was not so insistently athletic, although she could never be accused of slackness. After the tragic drama of the opening measures, the counterpoint of the Adagio flowed forth gracefully before the movement climaxes in a fugue of implacable energy. As in the Second English Suite, McDermott had strong ideas about where to direct listeners’ ears — often to a phrase within the texture, which she might signal with a dynamic outburst from which she would recede rather quickly once the point had been made. When movement sections were repeated, she tended to infuse the music with a very different timbre the second time around. She allowed little or no space between movements, which compelled her readings right through to the end of the concluding Capriccio, which smacked of highly wrought bitterness. Her recital ended with a magisterial performance of Busoni’s arrangement of the Chaconne from Bach’s D-minor Partita for Unaccompanied Violin. Here McDermott adopted a less straitened pianistic style, using the pedals a good deal more than she had in the earlier items. The resulting atmosphere was filled with reverential grandeur that, strange to say, made me think of Elgar. ◀