A weighty “Metamorphosen” at Frankly Music
I don’t generally read art through the artist’s life. But Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen, Opus 142, sounds like the music of an old man who had lived through the Third Reich, seen his world devastated, lost much of his reputation and most of his wealth. All that was the case by 1945, when he composed Opus 142.
At Monday night’s Frankly Music opener, violinist Frank Almond and friends played the string septet version as if on the eve of the end of the world. Almond, violinist Ilana Setapen, violists Toby Appel and Anthony Devroye, cellists Edward Arron and Peter Thomas, and bassist Zachary Cohen played with their eyes up, communicating to one another not only cues and rhythms, but also the passionate despair in the music.
Metamorphosen rises from groaning figures and harmonies in the low strings. Treble cries flare up, then fragments of melody probe for cohesion. The first violin finally assembles those fragments into a tortured theme that goes on and on without satisfaction.
Monday, the dark current of harmony below had the force of a swift, deep undertow. Voices, solo and in combination, rise from that flow and recede back into its depths. You could count on the implacable forward drive, but everything else in the music felt slippery, unstable, dangerous. Ever so gradually, all seven voices grew more active on the way to a knot of the densest counterpoint I know. To hear this extraordinary performance in the small, live hall of the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music was to be in the nucleus of the music, surrounded by whizzing, charged particles. And just when you thought the piece had come to a climax, you realized that Richard Strauss hadn’t even begun to find his catharsis.
In the second half, the players (minus bassist Cohen) moved on to something completely different: Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, an extroverted, virtuoso rave-up on what sounds like Russian folk songs and dances (nothing sounds remotely Italian). An earthy vigor permeates the thing. The players brought out the barn dance in it, but I especially enjoyed their upstairs/downstairs take on the two main themes in the first movement. They stomped through the first theme, then went suave and effete on the waltzing second. When a highbrow meets a lowbrow, everyone has fun.
Almond has always given little talks about the repertoire at his Frankly Music. Monday, I was struck by how very good he’s become at mingling important facts about the music with his own theories and perceptions. He came across as exactly what he is: A charming, witty man who cares deeply about music.
This program will be repeated at 7 p.m. Tuesday (Sept. 28) at the conservatory, 1584 N. Prospect Ave. Details here.