Ilya Gringolts, Nicolas Altstaedt, Alexander Lonquich
9th Mizmorim Chamber Music Festival
Debussy / Wolpe / Kodály / Bloch / Korngold
Hans Huber-Saal, Stadtcasino, Basel, 2023-01-21
2023-02-04 — Original posting
Konzert V im 9. Mizmorim Kammermusik-Festival: Debussy, Wolpe, Kodály, Bloch und Korngold — Zusammenfassung
Mein zweiter Besuch am diesjährigen Mizmorim Kammermusik-Festival galt dem fünften Konzert im Hans Huber-Saal des Stadtcasinos Basel. Der abendfüllende Anlass wurde bestritten von Ilya Gringolts (Violine), Nicolas Altstaedt (Violoncello), und Alexander Lonquich am Flügel, die als Klaviertrio, sowie in allen möglichen Duo-Kombinationen auftraten, sowie einem Klavier-Intermezzo.
Zwei Klaviertrios formten den Rahmen: zu Beginn das Klaviertrio in G-dur, L.5 von Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918). Bereits hier überzeugten die Musiker als harmonisches, perfekt ausbalanciertes Ensemble, trotz voll geöffnetem Konzertflügel. Subtiles, farbenreiches, kohärentes und atmosphärisches Musizieren zog sich durch den ganzen Abend.
Es folgte ein kleines Zwischenspiel—sechs kurze Stücke aus “Three Times Wedding“ für Klavier von Stefan Wolpe (1902 – 1972): zwei jemenitische Tänze, “Hora“, “Jiddische Hochzeit”, “Wiegenlied”, und “Turque“.
Das dritte Stück vor der Konzertpause: das selten gespielte, anspruchsvolle Duo für Violine und Violoncello, op.7 des Ungaren Zoltán Kodály (1882 – 1967).
Die zweite Konzerthälfte begann mit zwei Duos von Ernst Bloch (1880 – 1959). Als erstes “From Jewish Life”, Three Sketches, für Violoncello und Klavier, komponiert 1925. Vom gleichen Komponisten sodann der Mittelsatz, die Improvisation (Nigun) aus “Baal Shem“, drei chassidische Stimmungen, für Violine und Klavier, aus dem Jahre 1923.
Den Abschluss machte das gewichtige, erste offizielle Werk des erst 12/13-jährigen Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897 – 1957), das Klaviertrio in D-dur, op.1: eine höchst erstaunliche Komposition!
Table of Contents
- Concert & Review
- Debussy: Piano Trio in G major, L.5 (1880)
- Composer & Work
- The Performance
- Wolpe: Excerpts from “Three Time Wedding” for Piano (1939)
- Kodály: Duo for Violin and Cello, op.7 (1914)
- Bloch: “From Jewish Life”, Three Sketches for Cello and Piano (1925)
- Bloch: ” Nigun ” from ” Baal Shem “, Three Pictures of Chassidic Life for Violin and Piano (1923)
- Korngold: Piano Trio in D major, op.1 (1909/1910)
- Composer & Work
- The Performance
- Debussy: Piano Trio in G major, L.5 (1880)
|Venue, Date & Time||Hans Huber-Saal, Stadtcasino, Basel, 2023-01-21 19:30h|
|Series / Title||Mizmorim Chamber Music Festival, Concert V: “From Jewish Life”|
|Organizer||Mizmorim Chamber Music Festival|
|Reviews from related events||Performances featuring Ilya Gringolts|
Concerts featuring Nicolas Altstaedt
Performances featuring Alexander Lonquich
Concerts in the context of the Mizmorim Chamber Music Festival
The Mizmorim Chamber Music Festival 2023
This is the third concert that I have been invited to in the context of the Mizmorim Chamber Music Festival, founded 2015 by the Israeli clarinetist Michal Lewkowicz. In my review from a Mizmorim concert on 2022-01-22, I have written extensively about the festival, its goals and achievements, so I’ll refrain from repeating myself here.
In my review from the concert on 2023-01-20 I wrote about the overall title for this year’s Mizmorim Chamber Music Festival, “Project Blue-White“. Superficially, that’s a reference to Israel’s national flag. However, this year’s festival follows the works of Theodor (Tivadar) Herzl (1860 – 1904). Herzl is now known as the father of Zionism, and also the man who proposed the blue-white flag for the First Zionist Congress. The latter took place in August 1897 in Basel—actually in the Stadtcasino, the building which that also housed today’s concert.
The First Zionist Congress actually happened in the main hall of the Stadtcasino (in the concert hall). For this chamber music concert, however, the Hans Huber Saal was the far better choice: a proper chamber music venue with a small balcony in the rear, holding audiences of up to 420. The name of the hall refers to the Swiss composer Hans Huber (1852 – 1921), who spent much of his life in Basel.
As already in the earlier Mizmorim concerts that I reviewed, the Swiss music journalist and violist Annelis Berger (music editor, producer and presenter at the Swiss radio station SRF 2 Kultur) served as moderator throughout the concert.
As also mentioned in the review for the concert on the preceding day, featuring the Gringolts Quartet, Ilya Gringolts has agreed to join the Festival organization as Artistic Consultant.
The program for this 2.5 hour concert featured two major works for piano trio, a set of short pieces for piano, plus works for all possible duo combinations with the above three musicians:
- Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918): Piano Trio in G major, L.5 (1880)
- Stefan Wolpe (1902 – 1972): From “Three Time Wedding”, for Piano (1939)
- Zoltán Kodály (1882 – 1967): Duo for Violin and Cello, op.7 (1914)
- Ernst Bloch (1880 – 1959): “From Jewish Life”, Three Sketches, for Cello and Piano (1925)
- Ernst Bloch (1880 – 1959): “Nigun” from “Baal Shem”, Three Pictures of Chassidic Life, for Violin and Piano (1923)
- Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897 – 1957): Piano Trio in D major, op.1 (1909/1910)
The title of this concert,”From Jewish Life“, is not a referring to Theodor Herzl directly, but rather to the title of the first of two works by Ernst Bloch in this program.
My seat was close to the center of the hall, in the middle of row 9.
Concert & Review
Debussy: Piano Trio in G major, L.5 (1880)
Composer & Work
Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) was just 18 when (in 1880) he completed his Piano Trio in G major, L.5. At that time, Debussy was in Fiesole (Italy), where he was working for the wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck (1831 – 1894), now primarily known as patron to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893).
- Andantino con moto allegro — Allegro appassionato — Un poco rallentando — Tempo I — Allegro appassionato
- Scherzo: Moderato con allegro — Intermezzo: Un poco più lento — Tempo I
- Andante espressivo — Un poco più mosso — Tempo I
- Finale: Appassionato — Un poco ritenuto — Tempo I
One remark on the tempo annotations: Andantino con moto allegro may seem rather unusual. In the printed score, the editor added a footnote stating that this presumably means Andantino con brio. Along the same lines, the editor suggests reading the Moderato con allegro in the Scherzo as Moderato con brio.
So many times have I encountered balance issues in chamber music involving a concert grand with fully open lid! Actually, just the concert on the previous day had been one such instance, and I remember earlier chamber music events, even involving some of tonight’s artists! This isn’t a universal observation, though. I also remember many concerts where artists (and acoustics?) avoided balance issues. Still, seeing the fully open Steinway D-274 rang some alarm bells. However, I’m ever so happy to state that in this concert, my fears weren’t justified at all!!
I. Andantino con moto allegro — Allegro appassionato — Un poco rallentando — Tempo I — Allegro appassionato
I needed only moments to realize that Alexander Lonquich took Debussy’s p seriously: his touch was so infinitely gentle, careful, mellow, the music so lyrical, airy and flowing! Ilya Gringolts joined in equally subtly, pp even, all sotto voce, as if he was just humming (or even thinking!) a simple folk melody / song. The cello part starts in bar #13—and here, Debussy writes mf. Consequently, it was with Nicolas Altstaedt only, that the music momentarily took on additional tone and expression. Just to return to the intimate atmosphere of the very beginning. The gentle colors, the flowery atmosphere of an impressionist painting!
The Allegro appassionato felt expressive, passionate. It didn’t lose any intensity also in the intimate moments. And Ilya Gringolts kept his voice “integrated” into that of the cello, never attempted to dominate. The two instruments often almost sounded like one and were themselves embedded also in the piano part. In Alexander Lonquich’s hands, ff wasn’t a true fortissimo outburst: rather, he appeared to interpret ff as high degree of expressive intensity / density. Conversely, the pp in the Un poco rallentando appeared as extra intimacy, warmth, emotionality. The entire movement felt extraordinarily atmospheric and harmonious: beautiful, indeed!
II. Scherzo: Moderato con allegro — Intermezzo: Un poco più lento — Tempo I
The Scherzo part (Moderato con allegro): mysterious, almost ghastly, full of suspense, with the pizzicati in the strings, the lightly dabbed staccato figures in the piano, and the subsequent reversal of the roles: so atmospheric, so pictorial. I could not resist picturing scenes in a film, maybe with figures stealthily moving around in semi-shadow, in a criminal story?
The central Intermezzo feels just as eerie, featuring a variety of sceneries. It begins with the cello (with piano accompaniment) presenting a moody melody—a little arioso. A capricious discourse between all three instruments follows: a lively interaction, like three people discussing diverse ideas.
Needless to say that throughout the movement, the three musicians were always interacting at eye level. If occasionally the cello was in foreground, that’s because the composer gave it the most melodious (most “human”, so to say) voice.
III. Andante espressivo — Un poco più mosso — Tempo I
Beautiful, Alexander Lonquich’s swaying agogics in the introduction! The cello singing that followed was so melancholic, longing! It all almost sotto voce. To me, it evoked soundtracks from files—by Federico Fellini (1920 – 1993), maybe? Jacques Tati (1907 – 1982)? Or Marcel Pagnol (1895 – 1974)?? Were these inspired by Debussy’s music? The central part goes through an expressive climax. Here the piano often has a (subtle) lead role. However, again, none of the musicians was ever trumping up or trying to raise his voice more than necessary. Atmospheric, harmonious playing beyond measure!
IV. Finale: Appassionato — Un poco ritenuto — Tempo I
Even though initially controlled, almost “in the underground”, rarely really loud, the emotions were boiling here, dense, intense. The middle part (Un poco ritenuto) featured intense singing. Elegiac, then again full of love / warm emotions, changing to playful and light. It then built up to a climax, where all of a sudden the music returns to the initial theme. Enthralling music in its emotionality!
Wolpe: Excerpts from “Three Time Wedding” for Piano (1939)
Composer & Work
- Jemenitischer Tanz (Yemeni dance) No.1
- Jemenitischer Tanz (Yemeni dance) No.2
- Yiddish wedding
- Wiegenlied (Cradle Song)
A highly interesting set of very short pieces! The two Yemeni dances featured superficially simple melodies—though (poly-)rhythmically intricate, “dangling”. It strongly reminded of folk and children’s music by Zoltán Kodály (1882 – 1967) or by Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945). Hora is both folksy and jazzy, syncopated, with distinct rubato.
However, the folksy note is even much stronger in the Yiddish wedding. A fun piece with alternating rhythms, accelerating, stopping, jumping, limping, capricious, nice! The Cradle Song: innocence, gentle—and the mother singing a calming melody: peaceful, serene! Turque, finally, is full of little surprises, irregular rhythms, erratic, hesitant, picking up momentum again—and all in a tiny microcosm!
Alexander Lonquich performed these dances with a warm, mellow touch, never exaggerating or caricaturing. The nature of these miniatures sets them apart from the bigger forms in the pieces that preceded and followed. A world in itself, rich, multi-faceted. It is, however, devoid of large gestures, and without the “big intent” in Debussy’s work, or in the other compositions in this concert. That said, I don’t mean to belittle these pieces as pure entertainment music!
Kodály: Duo for Violin and Cello, op.7 (1914)
Composer & Work
- Allegro serioso, non troppo
- Adagio — Andante
- Maestoso e largamente, ma non troppo lento — Presto
I. Allegro serioso, non troppo
Just two “naked” string instruments—but such rich, multi-faceted music! Richness not just in the piece overall, but even down to individual parts of a movement. Take the opening with its vehement, grand gestures: a fanfare, followed by highly expressive, lyrical line on the violin. It builds up expression to an early affirmative ending in bar #18.
A new theme starts: mysterious pizzicato accompanying a short cantilena. The two voices swap their roles twice, then jointly and rapidly build up to a “ff e crescendo” and “fff, con fuoco” eruption. The next episode combines playfulness, an earnest mood, expressive, descending cantilenas—just to lead into another eruption in violent motifs.
With the return of the pizzicato episode, the initially confusing multitude of ideas started to make sense: three distinctly different themes, which Kodály then “digests”, with the two musicians (or the themes?) stimulating each other, building up to a broad and virtuosic, extensive (and expressive) climax-cadenza. This ends in exhaustion, leading to an cello recitative: pondering, seeking, giving up. The violin then injects the suspenseful pizzicato motif, launching a joint search. This leads to an exploration of moods and characters. The ending is full of suspense, but indeterminate, mysterious, vanishing, a question mark…
A mind-blowing multitude of characters / themes! Highly emotional / expressive, with the two voices typically in an intense (and tense) dialog in opposing, but frequently swapping roles. The interpretation was unanimous through all the changes in tempo and characters, equally strong and expressive in tone.
II. Adagio — Andante
A dreamy beginning in the cello, pp, but molto espressivo and sempre crescendo. A silent monolog in what sounds like (and may well be) a Jewish melody. The violin joins in, sempre pp and senza espressione (!), moving up to high pitches on the e” string, now molto espressivo. A suspenseful, whispering dialog, intensifying, fading, the violin moving far away, into a distant place. The cello keeps pondering the violin’s first theme, then also seems to disappear, ppp on the empty C string.
Initially indistinct, then menacing waves of deep rumbling on the cello (tremolo, with mute) form the accompaniment to extreme expression in a recitative / declamation / lament on the violin, covering lowest to highest pitches at tumost intensity. The cello (without mute again) joins in. The two artists deploy a truly orchestral soundscape, from the subtlest murmuring / whispering, flautando and rolling flageolet tones up to powerful eruptions of rapid arpeggiando. The movement ends in extremes: from wistful singing to the strongest possible expression. Menacing, even life-threatening, anxiety—and a solemn, almost religious, transcending ending: redemption, transfiguration?
III. Maestoso e largamente, ma non troppo lento — Presto
Not surprisingly, the contrasts persist: the violin opens with an ascending, highly expressive cadenza monolog. Pause. And another eruption, from pizzicato secrecy to a strong crescendo that leaves the cello behind, a climax with another extreme in expression and intensity. Exhaustion, retraction into a violin recitative: commenting, secrecy or Angst? Morendo—and a sudden secco closure on the empty g string.
The Presto felt enthralling, suspenseful, highly virtuosic, never losing the tension. Musically, this part is the most advanced in the entire duo. However, that’s just another expression of Kodály exploring extremes. In this, he actually goes even farther than in the previous movements. The spectrum ranges from abstraction / modernism to a “concrete” sound painting, depicting maybe animals in nature. Or people chatting, dancing, engaging in lively discourse. This builds up to utmost excitement, turmoil—and a sudden, firm ending.
Fascinating, strong, powerful, extreme even!
Ilya Gringolts and Nicolas Altstaedt in Kodály’s rarely performed Duo op.7—a feast in colors and expression!
Bloch: “From Jewish Life”, Three Sketches for Cello and Piano (1925)
Composer & Work
The Swiss composer Ernest Bloch (1880 – 1959) is not to be mixed up with the German, marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885 – 1977). The composer was born in Geneva. He studied in Brussels, where his teachers included the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe (1858 – 1931), in Frankfurt and Paris. Bloch then returned to Geneva, before emigrating to the United States in 1916. There, he held several teaching positions and became a US citizen in 1924.
- Jewish Song
In the domain of art music, I can hardly imagine anything more Jewish than Ernest Bloch’s music. The two compositions in this concert are prime examples. Moreover, the way in which Nicolas Altstaedt approached the human voice, the specific Jewish idiom on his instrument was equally exemplary. The artist appeared to live this music, introverted-contemplative, intensely singing. Where the cello dominated, Alexander Lonquich kept his voice discreet, supportive, warm and mellow. Then again, he compassionately joined the cellist in the intense sadness, the wistful pleading of this prayer.
In the middle part (dolente), the pain, the suffering even increased. Now, the return of the wistful plea appeared to include hope, the promise of redemption maybe, and the ending expressed both wish and despair. Beautiful, and intense!
Also here: such intense singing! The way in which Nicolas Altstaedt was able to imitate multiple, different human voices (soprano, alto, bass) with their specific characteristics, timbres (colors, vocalisation) felt almost like a miracle. The piano mostly is accompaniment, support, adding atmosphere. However, there were definitely moments where Alexander Lonquich was approaching the cellist’s singing in the descant or in the bass—as much as the instrument permitted.
III. Jewish Song
Again, the cello proved the ideal instrument to imitate the human voice! Here, Nicolas Altstaedt achieved the dolente tone not just through Bloch’s quarter-tone acciaccaturas and slides, but also using an “airy” bow, barely touching the strings close to the bridge, producing a sound sometimes rich in harmonics, then again “raw”, close to flautando or flageolet. The piano even reinforced the rhythmic vagueness, indecisiveness—suspended, reaching out into infinity….
Bloch: “Nigun” from “Baal Shem“, Three Pictures of Chassidic Life for Violin and Piano (1923)
Composer & Work
- Vidui — Zerknirschung (Contrition)
- Nigun — Improvisation
- Simchas Torah — Jubel (Jubilation)
The concert booklet states that Bloch emphasized that he did not use existing Jewish melodies, but was rather inventing music in a Jewish tone: “I’m not an archaeologist. I’m interested in the Jewish soul, the complex, ardent, moved spirit that I sense vibrating in the Bible”.
Already in the opening bars, Alexander Lonquich was able to make the piano bass sing like a cello. Or, is this maybe in Bloch’s octave textures? Later, he made the instrument sound like the bass register of a cimbalom. In the first part (and often thereafter), Bloch wanted this to be performed on the g string. Indeed, Ilya Gringolts‘ Strad assumed the intensity, the fullness in sound of a viola. Bloch may not have quoted Jewish folk music directly, but his piece still is a prime example of such music, with its strong rubato, the sudden, rocket-like eruptions, violent outcries, which alternate with intense, introverted, prayer-like segments.
There is a central part that exhibited the Eastern origins (or even the Slavonic roots?) of this music. I again noted cimbalom sounds in the piano, triggering highly emphatic outbreaks on the violin. A cascading violin cadenza that prepares for the Poco meno lento part. A long build-up leads to an intense, expressive climax, another downfall in the violin cadenza acted as transition to an equally intense, tremulating after-climax. The latter relaxes to a long fermata, after which, there is no more outbreak, but an ending that is both dolcissimo, as well as pensive, pondering, pregnant with meaning. Obviously a transition / preparation for the third “Picture”.
The fact that Ilya Gringolts performed this almost or entirely by heart showed how much he has internalized this music! The two artists engulfed the audience in the sonoric richness of this music. Enthralling!
Korngold: Piano Trio in D major, op.1 (1909/1910)
Composer & Work
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897 – 1957) was born in Brünn in the Austro-Hungarian empire (now Brno in the Czech Republic). His family moved to Vienna, and Erich Wolfgang turned out a child prodigy at the piano (at age 5). At age 7, he was writing original music already. He made a career as pianist and particularly as composer and reacher. With the rise of the Nazio regime, he was invited by the motion picture director Max Reinhardt (1873 – 1943) to write music scores for films. So, he moved to Hollywood and became one of the most influential composers of film music.
- Allegro non troppo, con espressione — Ruhig — Più mosso
- Scherzo: Allegro — Trio: Viel langsamer, innig — Allegro
- Larghetto: Sehr langsam
- Finale: Allegro molto e energico — Allegretto amabile e giocoso — Allegro amabile — Bewegt, übermütig — Mit Humor, fast Walzertempo — Presto
I. Allegro non troppo, con espressione — Ruhig — Più mosso
The opening of the first movement is deceptive: calm, serene, slightly melancholic, almost harmless, like gentle waves on a sunny seashore. Soon, though, the music turns emphatically (late) romantic. At , and even more so at Ruhig, there is a short, cosy “Viennese coffee music” episode. This rapidly builds up to the Più mosso segment that concludes the exposition. The transition to the development part is clear and obvious—a short, wistful pp segmen. Still, repeating the exposition was particularly helpful with such lesser known music.
The string voices are mostly linear, but highly expressive. The piano part, however, struck me as fairly virtuosic and full-fingered, building up to powerful, climaxes in big gestures. Here, piano dominance is built into the composition. It certainly was not the pianist’s fault! The last bars are retracting and “diluting” into pp. However, as a surprise, the cello’s final, loud sf pizzicato made the audience smile.
II. Scherzo: Allegro — Trio: Viel langsamer, innig — Allegro
Again with a full-fingered piano part: a fun movement, joking, full of ideas, with eruptive moments, but also with light(-heareted), capricious segments. Fittingly, the annotation reads “Immer leicht und luftig” (always light and airy). I could not resist thinking of one of the tone poems by Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949)—namely, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, op.28.
The short Trio forms a stark contrast. It’s an Intermezzo of sorts: lyrical, atmospheric, melancholic—yet intense, very expressive. In the second instance of the Scherzo (not a repeat, but written out), the allusions to Strauss’ “Eulenspiegel” seemed even stronger. An excellent, astounding composition for a 12-year old (or young) composer!
III. Larghetto: Sehr langsam
While the first two movements did not feel particularly “Jewish”, the beginning of the Larghetto—especially the beginning of the cello part appeared to use specifically Jewish topoi. Or was this just Nicolas Altstaedt‘s expressive playing?
The piano part is once more full-fingered. No chance for Alexander Lonquich to avoid some dominance. However, Korngold kept the string voices sufficiently separate in pitch and/or character, such that violin and cello rarely drowned in the piano sound. For example, at “Etwas schneller” , the ff chords on the piano leave enough space for violin and cello pizzicato (ff) accompaniment to retain its presence.
A beautifully lyrical, highly atmospheric movement, serene, with both joyful and wistful elements—in a masterful performance.
IV. Finale: Allegro molto e energico — Allegretto amabile e giocoso — Allegro amabile — Bewegt, übermütig — Mit Humor, fast Walzertempo — Presto
The Finale is witty, joking, really burlesque, if not sometimes grotesque. It is also demanding. Right in the beginning, in the coordination between the strings, in the energetic spiccato. The interpretation of the entire movement struck me as highly unanimous, congenial and coherent, with the “expressive lead” moving between all three instruments, jointly reaching grandiose climaxes in big gestures.
At , the music appears to go overboard. Suddenly, we find ourselves in a grotesque waltz episode, which is disrupted by loud, noisy pizzicato chords from the cello. And there were even stronger “Eulenspiegel moments”: the waltz stops, and into a general rest (suddenly retained), Ilya Gringolts appeared to imitate the protagonist’s final whistling prior to execution. Here, however, the waltz resumes, now lighter, more vividly, and directly leading into the short, but overwound Coda and Presto ending.
As a composition, not all parts of Korngold’s piano trio may be equally compelling / conclusive. However, this interpretation presented it as a congenial masterwork.
The author would like to express his gratitude to Michal Lewkowicz, founder and artistic director, Mizmorim Chamber Music Festival, for the press tickets to this concert. All concert photos are © Zlatko Mićić.