Avalon String Quartet
Close Encounters With Music
The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center Theater
14 Castle Street
Great Barrington, MA
May 16, 2015
Debussy: String Quartet Op 10 in G Minor
Schubert: Cello Quintet in C Major D 956
with Yehuda Hanani, cello
Musical counterpoints with the Avalon Quartet at ‘Close
By Gabriel Lord Kalcheim, for Berkshire Edge, published on May 21, 2015
Cellist Yehuda Hanani’s worthy series of chamber music concerts, Close Encounters With Music, received its penultimate installment of the season last Saturday night at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, hosting the excellent Avalon String Quartet to play Debussy and Schubert. The Schubert was, in fact, the great C major Quintet, opus 163, probably the last thing that the composer ever wrote, and in many ways the pinnacle of his art. You can imagine how this dominated the evening, especially with such a polished and musically sensitive performance as I have come to expect from the Chicago-based Avalon Quartet, which was joined by Mr. Hanani as second cello, to fill out the Schubert Quintet.
In his opening remarks, Mr. Hanani made the point that both Debussy and Schubert were aged 31 when they composed these pieces, but very much at opposite ends of their respective careers: Debussy was a composer just coming on the scene and still seeking his trademark new sound, which would become the basis of much modern impressionistic music of the French school; Schubert, already aware that he was suffering from a mortal illness, had reached the height of his powers. Mr. Hanani said a lot of things I did not know, or perhaps did not care to know — as I have never been very partial to Debussy’s music — about the influence which the exhibitions of foreign music at the 1893 Paris World’s Fair, and in particular of Javanese Gamelan Music, had on the young Debussy. Debussy’s interest in this kind of “ethnic” music was, of course, part of the tradition of French composers paying homage to the music of a supposedly much more provincial Spain, of which Bizet’s Carmen is surely the most popular example. But, with Debussy this sort of ethnographic music making becomes anti-western, and begins to question the heritage of tonal music as it had developed from the Renaissance onwards.
Happily for us patrons of Saturday’s concert, the String Quartet in G minor Opus. 10 shows the musically iconoclastic Debussy as only his most nascent self: There is just enough dissonance, and a generally hypnotic use of the whole-tone scale, to give us a sense of something remarkably new and enchanting. The result is pretty convincing, even for those who of us don’t always get along with Debussy. Even if Debussy has neglected the tools by which to charm us with harmonic changes, or heart-felt melodies, he has done a good deal else besides: The themes, such as they are, are incisive and creative; the scoring for the string quartet ensemble, rather expert. The result is to draw us into a nether-world of floating melodies and tastefully chosen rhythmic ideas that is really rather charming. By the third movement it becomes positively seductive.
Why this quartet is such a good pairing with the Schubert’s C major Quintet is that, while the Debussy piece manages to find new ways of pleasing the hearer, largely through rhythmic and coloristic means, Schubert’s final work brings to perfection the tried and true means of heartfelt melody and harmonic development. In essence, the Debussy is everything the Schubert is not, and the Schubert everything the Debussy is not.
The C major Quartet is, in a sense, Schubert’s last will and testament; it is also, tragically, the point at which everything that Schubert had attempted musically seemed to fall into place. Schubert’s fertile melodic sensibility, and corresponding melodic urge to modulate into new keys with both creativity and taste, had perhaps never been in doubt. But Schubert had never really been a master of musical form. His masterpiece of a 9th Symphony, for all its undoubted power and expert orchestration, has transitions that can seem a bit clunky. Not so in the C major Quintet: The elegance and seamlessness of his transitions, from development to recapitulation, are at times almost worthy of Mozart.
But we have also some of the greatest melodies that Schubert ever wrote, which is saying a great deal for a composer who seems at times to have had an endless supply of them. Particularly famous is the principle theme of the opening movement. This is prefaced by a serene introductory section which evokes something of the experience of watching the sun rise, and then the sort of rollicking and impulsive transitory passage of which Schubert is so fond. Just as the skilled playwright juxtaposes scenes of action and conflict with scenes that are more tranquil, Schubert introduces this, surely one of his very best melodies, in just such a manner. It is indicative, I think, of Schubert’s keen sense of drama, employed throughout the work and very much adhered to by the first-rate Avalon Quartet which could be both feisty and gentle in equal measure. I was struck by the Avalon’s particular legato approach to the first movement theme, condensing notes into one bow’s length which are often played in multiple bow strokes. The result was a sort of drifting quality which I had never quite experienced before in this celebrated theme.
What you can also be assured of, with the Avalon quartet, is their virtuosity and precision: Where more famous groups will sometimes “phone in” a less technically challenging work because they know most of the audience can’t tell the difference, the Avalon players are always very well prepared. Perhaps that is what enables them to be so musical.
If the respective modi operanandi of the two composers presented on Saturday evening are to be compared, I would say that the School of Schubert wins every time. But there is surely a place for Debussy’s nether world as well, provided it be kept in small enough doses. Walking away with the Schubert Quintet having taken over most, but not all of my recollection of that evening, I felt I had just the right amount of each.