A couple of recently composed pieces found their way to the music stands at Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival during the past week. On July 30 and July 31 (I heard the latter performance), violist Brett Dean was assisted by pianist Juho Pohjonen in Dean’s Rooms of Elsinore, performed at St. Francis Auditorium. This is the fourth work of Dean’s that the festival has hosted in the past few years. Among them was (in 2014) his String Quartet No. 2, which is a suite for soprano and string quartet subtitled And once I played Ophelia. The soprano’s text was made up of words declaimed by or directed to Ophelia in Hamlet. The soprano Tony Arnold, who performed it here, described it as a monodrama. Since then, Dean, an Australian composer born in 1961, has vented his fascination with that play through his opera Hamlet, premiered this June at the Glyndebourne Festival; and he has brought up the rear with his 20-minute Rooms of Elsinore, co-commissioned by Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and premiered this past April at the Library of Congress. “Rooms of Elsinore,” he writes, “is the end point of an amazing four-year journey of discovery and wonder through Shakespeare’s Hamlet.This new work for viola and piano represents a sort of closing of the book on this venture.”
It was directly inspired by a visit to Elsinore Castle in Denmark, where Shakespeare situated his play. The work’s seven movements (the first and second, and the sixth and seventh, are connected into dyads) are basically a tour of the castle, their music suggesting what might have gone on in the various rooms. The composer says that it “has a sort of dramaturgy of its own — an inner trajectory that reflects the spaces where the action unfolds — yet without being overtly programmatic.” I guess that means it is intended to convey moods rather than a specific narrative. That it does. The opening movement, “The Dark Gate,” has the viola emit sustained creaks against ostinato-like figures in the piano; and this yields to a faster section (“The Four Gate Courtyard”) filled with viola arpeggios. So it continues through other locations, sometimes with a haunting viola line against a quivering keyboard part (“The Platform”), sometimes bounding about like a dissonant Prokofievian toccata (“The King’s Chamber”), with moods alternating through to the mournful end. Dean, who played viola in the Berlin Philharmonic for 15 years, knows how to draw all sorts of sounds out of his instrument, but he also has skill in turning a sustained line, which adds much to the evocative quality of this work’s slower expanses.
More challenging and less welcoming was Julian Anderson’s 20-minute Sensation for solo piano, performed by Stephen Gosling on Aug. 3. Again, this was a festival co-commission, and again the premiere had taken place elsewhere — in this case, at the 2016 Aldeburgh Festival. Anderson, a British composer, developed early on under the influence of the spectralists, who derived their compositions by applying mathematical computations and algorithms to the physical aspects of sounds. I doubt that Sensation was such a piece in any strict sense (although it would be hard to know, and a listener needs not care), but Gosling’s performance was calibrated to stress the physical behavior of tones. This was particularly effective in the last of the work’s five movements (not counting a coda), “Alba” (“a celebration of the sounds and sensations of dawn and the return of sunlight,” according to the composer), voiced to highlight ringing harmonics. The opening movement, “She Hears,” was an homage to Imogen Holst, daughter of composer Gustav and a composer herself. Anderson points out that it includes allusions to two of the father’s compositions, but on the whole its slow, dense chords reminded me instead of the ongoing thanks modern composers owe to Debussy.
Following Anderson’s piece was the String Octet of Max Bruch (1838-1920), a composer known almost exclusively for his G-minor Violin Concerto and his Kol nidrei for cello and orchestra. At no point in his long and worthy career did Bruch seem to be ahead of his time, although his famous violin concerto, sometimes viewed as a knock-off of Brahms’ analogous composition, was actually written earlier. Bruch had no illusions about how he compared to that towering genius, whom he counted as a friend. “Brahms was a far greater composer than I am for several reasons,” he told an interviewer. “First of all he was much more original. He always went his own way. He cared not at all about the public reaction or what the critics wrote. ... I had a wife and children to support and educate. I was compelled to earn money with my compositions. Therefore I had to write works that were pleasing and easily understood. I never wrote down to the public; my artistic conscience would never permit me to do that. I always composed good music but it was music that sold readily. There was never anything to quarrel about in my music as there was in that of Brahms.”
In fact, Brahms would sound downright futuristic when compared to this Octet — which is astonishing because the Octet dates from 1920, when Stravinsky wrote his Symphonies of Wind Instruments and Schoenberg was on the verge of his breakthrough to 12-tone composition. Probably 10 years had passed since I had last heard Bruch’s Octet, and on the way to the concert I described it to a friend as sounding as if it was from 1870. My memory deceived me by about three decades; for the most part, the piece could have been born in the 1840s. One read in the program notes that Bruch may have drawn some inspiration from Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings (Bruch’s biographer Christopher Fifield said that, too). Indeed, there is a Mendelssohnian aspect to parts of this piece, but it’s hard to hear specific points of contact with that masterwork, which dated from 1825. Mendelssohn’s piece has four movements, Bruch’s has three. They employ a differently constructed ensemble; Mendelssohn calls for four violins, two violas, and two cellos, whereas Bruch trades in one of the cellos for a double bass, which augments the sonic depth. More important, though, Mendelssohn really deploys his players as an ensemble of eight equals. Bruch approaches the group more in the spirit of the “double quartets” of Louis Spohr, with one string quartet (here violinists Martin Beaver and Owen Dalby, violist Ida Kavafian, and cellist Timothy Eddy) in the vanguard and the other (violinists Todd and Daniel Phillips, violinist Steven Tenenbom, and double bassist Mark Tatum) tending toward an accompanimental role. The Phillipses, Tenenbom, and Eddy are otherwise known as the Orion String Quartet; Beaver was with the now defunct Tokyo String Quartet; and Dalby is with the St. Lawrence String Quartet — so some experienced chamber-music hands were at work in this forthright interpretation. I was particularly taken with Beaver’s playing in the lead seat; as in other concerts I have heard him play this season, he offered beautifully cultivated tone and elegant phrasing.
Bruch’s Octet is more than just technically unimpeachable. It has a lot going for it, one of its strong points being that it builds through each of its movements; the second is better than the first, the third better than the second. That final movement, an Allegro molto, shows real oomph. Its third main theme (I guess you would call it) is especially memorable; it rises out of the deep strings with spacious dignity — almost like an uplifting hymn — beneath the scurrying of the violins. I first got to know Bruch’s Octet through a fine recording made in 1995, now long out of print, by the Bronx Arts Ensemble. One of the delights of that CD, which can probably be tracked down through internet sources, is that it was coupled with the Septet (clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, and double bass) that Bruch composed in 1849, when he was eleven years old. You would never, ever guess it was the work of so young a composer, and it would be hard to think of another case where a CD could contain significant pieces any composer wrote 71 years apart. (You could come close with Elliott Carter, but only if you used the original version of an early piece he later rewrote.)
Bruch’s Octet has been recorded a couple of times since then, and a splendid new reading by the Nash Ensemble — one of Britain’s most notable chamber groups — is just out on the Hyperion label. It is a celebration of late Bruch, offering not only the 1920 Octet but also two string quintets from 1918. None of these pieces was published during his lifetime. One of them, the Quintet in A minor, was played in a Bruch memorial concert shortly after he died, but all three received their public premieres only in 1937-1938, in BBC broadcasts. The quintets show Bruch’s Brahmsian side more clearly than the Octet does, and the Nash Ensemble renders all of them with inspired conviction. ◀