A masterpiece from the center of the literature, an intriguing oddity never before heard here, and an underrated early 20th century gem deserving much more exposure gave listeners a stimulating program Sunday evening as the curtain came down on the 2001 Roycroft Chamber Music Festival.
And when the lusty applause had subsided, it was the seldom heard 1918 Piano Quartet by Sir Edward Elgar that seemed to have aroused most audience fervor. It is a work written from deep down in Elgar's heart, a work that speaks often in allusion and that stimulated thoughts of haunted landscapes and distant memories. This was evident in the atmospheric performance of the hesitant, uncertain opening pages, and emphasized when the artists later sailed out with assurance onto more secure lyrical ground, tinged with occasional brief statements of surprising sentimentality.
This was just a foretaste of the more overtly romantic yearnings Elgar revealed in the central Adagio, played with conviction and a sense of real passion at its peaks. This committed performance was infused with a mature yearning quality that helped to etch the music's profile indelibly in the mind. The ambulatory gait of the Finale's opening measures seemed something of a retreat from the slow movement's heartfelt confessions. But there were fleeting recollections of earlier material, which reconfirmed that Elgar really meant what he had said. The performance had a strong sense of continuity, commitment and urgency, powered from the interior by the piano's surging lines, all leading to a fine, naturally developing climax.
Of nearly equal interest was a splendid performance of "Till Eulenspiegel einmal anders" ("Till Eulenspiegel seen another way"), a very deft transcription by Hasenohrl for horn, clarinet, bassoon, violin and double bass of the well known Strauss tone poem. This apparent area premiere was superbly played by Kristen Thelander, John Fullam, Peter Schoenbach, Stefan Hirsch and James VanDemark with elan and assurance .
The difficult horn work was unerring, the clarinet's responses were crisp and articulate, and the ensemble played with a remarkable tightness. The double bass' simulation of the dramatic drum roll just as Till is about to be executed would certainly have brought a laugh, if it hadn't been so well executed.
The opening Beethoven Quartet in F, Op. 135 was also given a good performance. There were some shaky moments at the opening of the first two movements, but the devotional Lento was extremely well sustained.
This is the last of Beethoven's great "late" quartets. Full-time professional ensembles spend years honing their approach to this work before daring to presume they might be about to "get it right." So it's very understandable that four good professionals as an ad hoc ensemble with only a week to rehearse might be able to turn out a creditable job without reaching the heights.
Roycroft Chamber Music festival
Final concert of 2001 season.
Sunday evening in St. Matthias Episcopal Church, East Aurora.