The Joy of Great Chamber Music
Frankly Music sparkled in the fun part of their concert and ended with an achingly moving version of a great Strauss work.
Icy conditions could not deter an audience loyal to Frank Almond’s Frankly Music series, and for their loyalty and perseverance on Monday night, they were greatly rewarded. Celebrating the sesquicentenary of Richard Strauss’s birth, Almond and his colleagues performed two Strauss masterpieces—the Sextet from Capriccio, Opus 85, and the Rudolph Leopold septet arrangement of the Metamorphosen—which bookended Mozart’s String Quintet in C major, K. 515.
]The sextet from Capriccio serves as the overture to Strauss’s last opera by the same name. The premise of the opera is worth noting here: as two suitors vie for the hand of Countess Madeleine, they debate, fervently, which is the higher art—music or poetry. When the sextet is performed separately and as beautifully as it was Monday night, music clearly wears the laurel crown. Almond was joined by violinist Ilana Setapen, violists Toby Appel and Mario Gotoh, and cellists Susan Babini and Peter Thomas. The six players carried on a beguiling instrumental conversation that reiterated the crusade for music as the highest form of art. The cushion of sound the two cellos and two violas created was immediately pleasing to the ear, and the violins floated along dreamily on top. Almond, Appel, and Babini did have the majority of the featured lines, but the entire sextet was exceptional for its balance, ensemble, and sound.
Mozart—an undisputed genius for his chamber music, symphonic works, concerti, and opera—significantly influenced Strauss. The C major viola quintet was a perfect choice to follow the delightful sextet from Capriccio. Mozart’s voicing of two violins, two violas, and cello maintain the warm timbre of the previous sextet. In what represents an embarrassment of riches in Milwaukee’s string-playing community, the group was joined by violinist Yuka Kadota while Ms. Setapen and Mr. Thomas sat this one out.
The Allegro first movement begins with an amiable tête-á-tête between the cello and first violin. Mozart’s development section—music as quixotic as a lawn full of fireflies—takes complicated harmonic twists and turns that must have been mind boggling in Mozart’s day and still wows with a tangibly modern sound. The recapitulation finds the conversation returning to the cello and violin with lively interjections in the pairs of violas and violins, and the movement ends with simple charm. The Menuetto: Allegretto swirls and dances. The trio sections gave the two magnificent violists opportunities to shine, but the real magic was in the violin and viola duet in the Andante third movement. Here Almond and Appel’s lyrical dialogue was lovingly played. The Allegro fourth movement, a spirited romp, left Mozart lovers (and who doesn’t love Mozart?) with grins from ear to ear. Part of the fun was watching cellist Susan Babini, which was almost as good as listening to her. She was visually in communication with each member of the group, her musical energy gave life to every bar, and she’s got amazing chops. Chamber music is a lot of fun with that kind of engagement.
The second half of the program was devoted to Strauss’s transcendental Metamorphosen. Almond, Setapen, Appel, Gotoh, Babini, Thomas, and bassist Andrew Raciti gave a spectacularly impassioned performance of the septet version of this work, originally orchestrated for 23 solo strings. Words fail to describe the emotional impact this piece has on the listener and performer alike, but as the former, I was grateful for the full pause of silence the audience gave to the conclusion of the piece. Strauss used Beethoven’s funeral music from the Eroica symphony to whisper a eulogy to post-war German culture; then the music floated off into a breathtakingly fragile feeling of resignation and sadness. The septet delivered an achingly beautiful performance that will stay with me for a long time.