Tom Strini

Frankly Music’s smart, sensitive Chopin and Schumann

By - Nov 29th, 2010 11:25 pm
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Chopin and Schumann bicentennial commemorative set of stamps issued by Vatican City.

Frankly Music celebrated Schumann and Chopin, both of whom would have turned 2oo this year, with performances that brought the particular genius of each to full flower Monday night.

Violist Max Mandel and pianist William Wolfram in Schumann’s Märchenbilder (Fairy Tales), Opus 113. Violinist Frank Almond and cellist Stephen Balderston joined them for the more familiar Piano Quartet in E-flat, Opus 47. Within strong ensemble discipline, the players brought big, virtuoso muscle to bear on extravagant Romantic music. It sounded as if they had an opinion about every bar, and they sounded like the right opinions.

The Mandel’s generous portamento gave the main theme of the first fairy tale an appealing viscosity and authentic Romantic style. Schumann led a short, troubled life, but he wasn’t humorless, if the jaunty canter the players found in the second fairy tale reflects his personality. Both the duo and the quartet were attuned to subtle shifts in emotional weather within with very similar passages of music. Some of the dashing scales in the second fairy tale, for example, read as virtuoso dash. Later, given edgier tone and sharper accents, they became a vehement outbursts.

All four musicians have an expressive way with gorgeous melody, one of Schumann’s many strong suits. The main theme of the Cantabilie, in the Piano Quartet, is the sort of thing that people like to call heart-rending. But cellist Balderston’s didn’t hear it that way. He, and later Almond, played it with a transcendent simplicity and made it about ideal beauty rather than hot Romantic passion. Good choice.

We’ve been hearing a lot of Schumann in this bicentennial year, and I have to say it’s raised new respect in me for his compositional craft. The quartet’s finale, for example, jumps between a darting fugue theme and a long, ardent Romantic one. In the development, Schumann integrates the two in fragments as he dips in and out of the most sophisticated fugal procedures on the fly and maintains strong momentum and overall coherence. The piece is as technically ingenious as it is Romantically ardent. It takes canny, caring virtuosos to bring it off, and it had them Monday.

Wolfram, a New Yorker with a long, happy history of performances in Milwaukee, took care of Chopin. He played the Andante Fantasia in A-flat, Opus 49; the brief Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Opus posthumous; and the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brilliant. Chopin was a great improviser, and Wolfram played with a willful, fitful flex that made the Fantasia fantastical. He brought out the dreamy poetry in the ornate melodies of the Nocturne and the Andante Spianato, but measured rhythm to make it sound pliant rather than limp. In all three pieces, he offset the upper and lower voices ever so slightly to bring out an intriguing rhythmic interaction that isn’t necessarily evident on the page.

Almond hinted last week that he might play a soon-to-be-published violin sonata by Samuel Barber, who would have been 100 this year. Instead, he surprised us with a beautiful little March, also soon to be published. Barber composed in 194o, for his younger sister’s wedding. As far as anyone knows, the piece hasn’t been heard since then. It’s not a march at all, but a lovely intertwining of melody and countermelody for violin and cello, with a murmuring piano accompaniment. At the end, the piano mimics a distant horn call — lovely work, there, from Wolfram — and in two minutes, the March has come and gone.

This Frankly Music program took place at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. It will be repeated at 7 p.m. tonight (Tuesday, Nov. 30). Ticket info here.

0 thoughts on “Frankly Music’s smart, sensitive Chopin and Schumann”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Violist Max Mandel played “fiddle” to bring out the fantasy in Schumann’s Marchenbilder – a good touch.

    In a year saturated with Chopin virtuoso’s from age 10 and up, Willam Wolfram’s Chopin was the best I’ve heard. (Even better than Garrick Ohlsson’s Ravinia recital.) The continuity of the works, rather than the flourishes stood out. For the fantasy, Wolfram focused on the transitions as though they were extemporaneous explorations of what to do next. As a result, each section seemed like the logical next step – difficult to convey in a fantasy piece.

    Schumann’s Quartet has been offered twice within a few weeks. I preferred the Fine Arts Quartet. Their long experience working together paid off. They had fully integrated guest pianist, Xiayin Wang, and allowed her a stronger role than William Wolfram took on last night. Although the Fine Arts Quartet has a reputation for racing through scherzo and finale passages, Almond’s quartet choose an even faster pace. That was fine for the short scherzo. The finale deserves more time to savor the fugue passages, but especially to treasure the grand melodies revisited to end the work.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Loved hearing Mr. Wolfram’s performance on the Chopin works – just beautiful. Pleasantly surprised at how the program was set up, I didn’t expect that. Classy…

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for commenting, gentlemen.– Strini

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