20th-century works for strings in spotlight at Philharmonic’s “Ensembles” concert
The New York Philharmonic continued its Ensembles series Sunday night in a matinee at Merkin Concert Hall with a trio of string pieces composed in the 20th Century. The series is a smart project, plucking (about once a month) small groups from the orchestral ranks to provide intimate performances of chamber works. Sunday’s program was presented in increasing instrumentation, beginning with Kristof Penderecki’s 1991 String Trio, then a Sibelius quartet and finally a piano quintet by the lesser known Vittorio Giannini.
Cellist Nathan Vickery, who worked with Penderecki at the Marlboro Music Festival in 2013 and in preparation for a Philharmonic concert (both marking the Polish composer’s 80th birthday) described an early penchant for Penderecki’s composing “against the audience,” a tendency that waned in later years, and described the trio as a “more unified whole.” The piece begins with a single, repeatedly pounded note which quickly gave way to a lyrical, unaccompanied viola melody. Putting the underdog viola at the fore was a statement of common interest, suggesting at the outset that each of the instruments would be on equal footing. The pounding motif returned, alternating with an unaccompanied cello passage that passed to violin. The second of the two movements also began with violist Dawn Hannay playing unaccompanied, the other two strings then following into what seemed a canon, in feel if not in structure. The piece wore its heart on its sleeve, almost an instruction manual in sonority, and the trio rose to the power and richness for which the composition called.
Sibelius’ 1909 String Quartet in D minor, “Voices intimae,” Op. 56 was labeled “a true masterpiece” by violist Irene Breslaw in her introduction (it was a good afternoon for violists). Composed between his Third and Fourth symphonies, it’s a rare chamber work for Sibelius and even rarer given its gravity (in opposition to the relative lightness of much of his smaller ensemble work). The composer called it “the kind of thing that brings a smile to your lips at the hour of death,” Breslaw said. It too featured unaccompanied lines, here in a back-and-forth between cello and violin before a breathtaking swell and bold viola/cello unison grrounding. Indeed, the first of the five movements evoked images of a darkness invading placid waters, like an oil slick – or something more foreboding. The second movement was an exhilarating chase, the third a long, beautiful languor, finding resolution in the fourth before an unexpectedly upbeat fifth movement.
Vittorio Giannini’s 1932 Quintet for Piano and Strings occupied the second half. Violinist Yulia Ziskel asked if anyone in the audience was familiar with Giannini and then asked the ensemble if they were prior to rehearsing this piece, pretty well establishing the fact that the American composer has been unfairly forgotten just 48 years after his death.
Giannini’s music is unapologetically romantic – the mistaken 1847 composition date in the program could almost be believed. Beautiful, softly heroic piano lines (intoned dramatically by Keuna Lee) were set against repeating string figures in the effective first movement. But the piece is undoubtedly American, with a Copelandesque flair and an unselfconscious bravado.
The players, of course, rose to the music but sharing a program with such masters as Penderecki and Sibelius, Gianni’s music came off as overly strident, leaving the second half of the afternoon less satisfying than the first.