Nothing More Than . . .

The past few weeks have made their mark on my critical apparatus. Johannes Brahms has been his usual nasty scold. Richard Strauss has gone on a rant and a screech. A cadence in a Mozart piano concerto left me numb, and a pileup of dissonances in a Bach cantata brought on a terrifying specter of the wages of sin. It’s all part of the job, of course, and I loved every moment, almost.

I did not — do not — love the C-minor String Quartet of Brahms, however, and cannot imagine why the excellent Calder Quartet devoted their splendid, youthful vigor to the task of turning it into music. To me this music is, in a word, cranky, the more so at Zipper Hall, where it came after the group’s splendid work in the last quartets of Mozart and Bartók. The Calder is well along in the mellowing process needed to produce good chamber ensembles (as with good wine — an apt analogy). They are in residence at the Colburn School, perfecting their art by teaching it to others and emerging for public performances not nearly often enough.

C minor is also the key of the slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto, K. 482, which Emanuel Ax played with the Philharmonic and Alexander Mickelthwate this past weekend. Toward the end of that movement, there is a passage of hushed exaltation that belongs among the great “What hit me?” moments in all music. It is nothing more than a sudden shift from minor to major, set as a conversation between soloist and a few instruments from the orchestra, but if you know your Mozart, you know that a “nothing more than” moment can hit you very hard, and so this does. You also have to credit the excellent young Mickelthwate, who is now the Philharmonic’s associate conductor with one hand while conducting the Winnipeg Symphony with the other, for maintaining his composure in a program offering that miraculous Mozart concerto and the billboard-size proclamations of Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben with only the innocuous glitz of the Strauss Burleske to serve as bumper. If the Heldenleben must happen (a proposition I will argue), let it be in this vigorous, propulsive manner. Mr. Mickelthwate led the work without score; I hope he has left room in his head for better things as well.

Singers vs. Sinners

“Stand firm against all sinning,” warns the mezzo-soprano, “or its poison will possess you,” and Bach drives his poisoned needles homeward with shrieking dissonances such that his 1714 audiences might also have asked what mysterious power had smitten them. Even absent their ailing founder and leader, Reinhard Goebel, the strong-hearted ensemble Musica Antiqua Köln reaffirmed their reputation for sending forth sugar-free renditions of early music with its sinews pristine. If Bach’s cantata (No. 54, “Widerstehe doch der Sünde”) was their Disney program’s highlight, the other important message was how pokey and predictable so much of the rest of this ecstatically rediscovered Baroque stuff (Jan Dismas Zelenka, represented on the program by an endless on-and-on vocal motet) can be. Ilia Korol was the substitute leader in this, announced as Musica Antiqua’s farewell tour; Marijana Mijanovic was the vocal soloist, deep-voiced and resplendent.

Three decades before, contemporary with the birth of Bach, Henry Purcell’s music — its passions much colored by his studies of Italian music — also acquired much of the power to disturb and to amaze that would later come to Bach in a different world. At the First Congregational Church in, as you might guess, one of the “Historic Sites” series, which remains unrivaled anywhere else, the small group (five voices plus organ), Paris-based, that calls itself Ensemble européen William Byrd turned Purcell and his French contemporary Marc-Antoine Charpentier into magic on a recent Sunday.

The Purcell group, anthems composed for the newly restored Chapel Royal and most of them from the composer’s 20s, simply throbbed with dramatic force. From Italy he had absorbed the power of dissonance and sudden change. The force that we know in his later works like Dido and Aeneas is already here in, for example, the short three-voice drama Saul and the Witch of Endor, a scene in florid, Italian style in which the troubled Saul, on the eve of battle, begs the Witch to summon up the spirit of the dead Samuel. Under the leadership of the Australian-born Graham O’Reilly, the five Ensemble singers, French and with accents charmingly blended, transformed the music into an audible translation of the great rose window in the apse behind them.

Piping Hot

In 62 years of professional journalism, it has never occurred to me to write about organ music, least of all in a church, until this week. Here’s what happened. Sixty-four years ago, I had a best friend at summer camp; our friendship was cemented by a shared passion for Dvorák’s Cello Concerto, which I had brought with me on the five 78s, not being able to leave them at home. After that summer (1942), we drifted apart until about two months ago, when for a series of delightful reasons we resumed correspondence. He had in the meantime become a renowned anesthesiologist and, as a sideline, a producer of recordings of organ performances by Dr. Gerre Hancock at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. This is one of the great church organs in America, and Dr. Hancock, now at the University of Texas, ranks as one of the great organists of his time, especially with regard to his skill in improvisation. Nothing would do, therefore, but that I make my way to St. James’ Episcopal Church on Wilshire Blvd. last Sunday, to listen to Dr. Hancock’s guest recital and compare his playing with all the discs my newly rediscovered friend has been sending me. (His name is also Alan.)

The improviser’s art is music’s central magic. The repertory sustains itself around its power to state and then to vary; the organ is the supreme exerciser of this power. Dr. Hancock’s program would conclude, it was announced, with an “improvisation on submitted themes” as once did concerts by Mozart and Beethoven. The “submitted theme” this time was John Williams’ tune from Star Wars; one might have expected the worst. One would have been wrong; what we got instead was a beautifully fashioned, sophisticated, four-movement work that strayed far from the given theme, drew a splendid variety of thematic substances from its modest outline, ventured far into dark and complicated regions, and returned triumphant at the end. If this is what I’ve missed by ignoring church music for 62 years, perhaps it’s time to start listening.

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