Festival Chamber Music is a rotating group of enterprising top-notch New York musicians. They like to take time out from their busy lives as performers and teachers to present new and unfamiliar works in a variety of instrumental combinations, as well as staples of the standard repertoire. Founded in 1988 by its director, cellist Ruth Sommers, in Dobbs Ferry, the group moved in 1992 to New York City, where it performs an annual series of five concerts to sell-out audiences.
Its most recent program was of particular interest. It featured Beethoven’s popular Piano Quartet, Op. 16 in E-flat major in an excellent performance, and works by two virtually unknown Czech composers: the Quintet for piano, violin, cello , clarinet and horn, Op. 42 by Zdenek Fibich (1850-1900), written in 1893, and the String Trio by Gideon Klein (l9l9-l045), one of the so-called Holocaust composers, written in 1944. Fibich, though born in Prague, did not follow in the footsteps of his compatriots Smetana and Dvorak, the fathers of the Czech nationalist movement; rather, his music–though never openly derivative–is steeped in the Romantic German tradition. In the Quintet, Fibich’s compositional skill shows in his modulations (which use a lot of deceptive cadences), and in his ability to exploit and combine the instruments’ colors and timbres to best effect. The first and last of the Quintet’s four movements are in sonata form; the Scherzo, marked “with wild humor,” foreshadows Shostakovich in its acerbic sarcasm, but this is relieved by two cheerful Trios, a waltz and a polka. A solo piano passage leads back to the da capos. The Quintet’s centerpiece is the slow movement, a truly beautiful, long-breathing melody, stated first by the piano in solid and arpeggiated chords, then repeated with a florid violin obbligato. The work’s most pervasive characteristics are its democratic distribution of the solos, its unabashed romanticism, and its surging, soaring melodies; but the heart-on-sleeve quality of the music is so genuine that sentiment never lapses into sentimentality.
Gideon Klein already had several compositions to his credit when he was sent to Terezin in 1941. At 20, he must have been one of the youngest of the composers who perished in the Nazi death-camps, and, if this String Trio is any indication, also one of the most talented. A brilliant pianist, his ability to use the string instruments’ resources was remarkable. Though naturally still under the influence of contemporary stylistic trends, the Trio displays a personal voice and an astoundingly mature emotional range. Its three movements are all based on Moravian folksongs. The first and last are fast, skittish, jumpy, abrasive, and dissonant, often punctuated with Slavic and Hungarian off-beat rhythms; the last one ends in a Bartokian dance and a crash. The Trio’s core is the much longer, slow, middle movement: a set of variations of contrasting tempos, textures and characters that encompass defiance, grief and despair, leaving the listener shaken and heart-broken. Klein became one of Terezin’s heroes, organizing its musical and cultural activities. The Trio was written nine days before Klein’s deportation to Auschwitz; he died there a year later.
Heard at two rehearsals, the playing of this demanding program was excellent. Pianist Funahashi alternated imperceptibly between leading and supporting, always sensitive, never too loud; hornist Jolley and clarinetist Oshima were outstanding in their prominent roles. The Quintet had an almost orchestral sonority at times. The string players negotiated their often stratospheric parts with aplomb; cellist Sommers provided a firm foundation, violinist Wiersma was a strong leader in the Beethoven and Klein; Arm, doubling on violin and viola, had the courage to play the bigger instrument first, but kept his intonation intact – no mean feat.
These fine, adventuresome musicians deserve our admiration and gratitude for bringing these unjustly neglected works to our attention in such committed, persuasive performances.