The Fine Arts Quartet, all in for Saint-Saens
The Fine Arts Quartet celebrated Camille Saint-Saëns, the lightweight who longed for the heavyweight division, at the quartet’s season closer on Sunday.
As the French composer’s Barcarolle for Piano Quartet, Opus 108 (1898, rev. 1909); the Piano Quartet in B-flat, Opus 41 (1875) and the Piano Quintet in A minor, Opus 14 (1855) passed by, it became apparent that Saint-Saëns brought little new to music history. Any number of Germans had already done the sort of thing Saint-Saëns did, and done it in more interesting and profound ways.
Still, this music has appeal beyond the composer’s awesome technical prowess. Though Saint-Saëns spoke in essentially German musical language, he spoke it with a French accent that distinguishes his music and gives it charm.
The Barcarolle, played most sympathetically by pianist Cristina Ortiz, violinist Efim Boico, violist Nicolò Eugelmi and cellist Robert Cohen, sounded wonderfully clever in its construction and lovely in its sonority. This vivid picture-postcard of a tone poem opens with sparkling piano figuration suggesting sunlight on the waves. Beneath the piano, a gentle string ostinato sounds for all the world like waves lapping against a gliding hull. Italianate songs appear, like Venetian scenes passing by on the banks of a canal during a 12-minute cruise.
Saint-Saëns would have been the first to call the Barcarolle a precious trifle. Opus 41 and Opus 14 show far more ambition. They made me wish the composer had been wise enough to be trivial all the time. The opening fanfare of Opus 41 (with violinist Ralph Evans replacing Boico), played quietly to indicate of distant martial ceremonies, introduces a hymn-like principal theme that extends into a florid, sentimental line. That brings us to a more muscular assertion of the fanfare. This sort of pep-talk for the troops launches an elaborate contrapuntal working out of all the materials. Even with this very good, committed performance, it sounded Romantic only up to the bounds of good taste and accepted practice — supremely confident and skilled, but of no particular interest. And the obligatory cyclical re-introduction of prior material into the finale, in both works, sounded, well, obligatory. Saint-Saëns’ ideas don’t make enough of a first impression to support the hey-remember-this-gem nostalgia that is the point of the recycling.
But Opus 41 certainly had its engaging moments. The scherzo-like third movement is a riot of scampering scales — what a fleet, light touch Ortiz showed here — until everything stops for an ardent, out-of-the-blue violin cadenza/recitative that Evans nailed. In the finale, Ortiz brusquely pounded out the principal them, which dissolved into thickets of chromatic scales. When that initial theme returned, gently and warmly harmonized in the strings, it could not have been sweeter.
Ortiz, Evans, Boico, Eugelmi and Cohen fully realized that potential glory at every opportunity.
This program took place at the Zelazo Center of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where the Fine Arts Quartet is in residence.
Sunday, the group announced the lineup for the 2o12 Summer Evenings of Music Series:
June 10: Guest pianist Xiayin Wang, music by Beethoven, Zimbalest, Faure.
June 17: Music by Haydn, Dohnanyi and Beethoven.
June 24: Guest pianist Menahem Pressler, guest bassist Zachary Cohen, music by Mozart, Debussy and Schubert.
June 28: Guest violist Karine Lethiec, music by Mozart and Brahms.
Further information will be posted at the Fine Arts Quartet UWM website.