By Kip Tabb
Powerful, evocative and compelling, the performance of the ECU Four Seasons Chamber Music of Ernest Bloch’s Piano Quintet No. 1 was everything great music is supposed to be.
The composition is a work of pure genius but it takes musicians of the caliber of Rieko Aizawa on piano, violinists Jesse Mills and Hye-Jin Kim, cellist Raman Ramakrishnan and viola Ara Gregorian to bring what is an intricate and remarkably complex piece of music to life.
The sound is often discordant, there is no clear time signature, notes seem to come and go at random at times…yet it all fits together beautifully and perfectly.
Written in 1923, listening to the composition, it is evident Bloch was aware of the shifting musical genres and directions of his time. There are elements of jazz and passages that suggest folk tunes. There exists an extraordinary tension throughout the piece, accentuated by quartertones and discordant notes within passages.
Yet there is beauty within the music as well—wonderfully lyrical passages that allow the strings to soar over a sometimes confusing landscape of unresolved chords and rhythms. Melodies that seem to suggest a wild night of dancing or a folk tune seeped in the American psyche.
That is especially true in the second movement—Andante mistico.
Unlike the first movement, Agitato or the final movement Allegro energico, there is a clear musical theme woven throughout. There is still tension, there is still a sense of unease that some musical explosion is imminent, yet a constant within the movement is a melodic theme that suggest peace.
Underlying, or perhaps always lurking, ready to take the music in a new direction is the piano. The Andante mistico ends on one perfect chord, and suddenly the last movement, the Allegro energico explodes. The piano and the violins seem to be almost fighting for dominance of the music. Then the music slows, becomes almost soothing, but beneath it the piano rumbles, building tension, forcing the attention of the listener away from the strings. And so it goes back and forth…piano…strings…piano…strings.
The Bloch composition was the perfect companion for the Dvorak Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major that followed.
Written 40 years before the Block composition, the trends that music was following become clear.
More melodic and more rhythmic than Bloch’s music, Dvorak was moving away from the closely structured arrangements to something more reflective of life.
The first movement, Allegro ma non tanto, begins with a beautiful and lyrical melody, ending with a furious assault from violins and viola.
The music resolves, going back to the original melodic theme.
As a theme and variations, it is very much a part of classical repertoire, but the use of varying and abrupt rhythm shifts and atonality moves the piece away from the classical music of the 18th and first half of the 19th century into a more modern framework.
The piece was written at a time when European composers were discovering folk tunes as a source for their music. Dvorak’s Piano Quintet No. 2 is very much in that tradition.
The melody that introduces the Allegro suggests a folk song, but it is the second movement, Dumka: Andante con moto that goes beyond suggestion to statement.
The term “dumka” describes a type of Ukrainian folk tune and the movement with its tight structure and beautiful melody takes full advantage of its musical roots.
But the beauty and languid pace of the Dumka ends and the power—and the fury—of the Scherzo (Furiant): motto vivace, is like jumping into a cold ocean on a hot day…shocking, enervating and ultimately satisfying.
All the elements of what are associated with modern composition are there—abrupt shifts in tempo and time signatures and atonality, yet in the hands of musicians as skilled and gifted as the Four Seasons Quintet performing at All Saints, the work, or works, become remarkable reflections of the world around us.
Next up for the Bryan Cultural Series will by a reading by Andrew Lawler, The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession and the Search for the Lost Colony.
“Part detective novel, part historical reckoning, Lawler’s engrossing book traces the story of—and the obsessive search for—the lost colony of Roanoke… [l]eading to a thoughtful and timely discourse about race and identity…. Lawler makes a strong case for why historical myths matter.”—Publishers Weekly
Lawler has chosen the Outer Banks and the Bryan Cultural Series for his first public reading. July 6 at All Saints Episcopal Church in Southern Shores and July 8 at the Dare County Arts Council Gallery in Manteo.