Painting by Tahir Salahov,Courtesy Los AngelesPhilharmonicDark Regions
E-flat minor is dank and sinister territory. Ascribing personalities to specific tonalities is a shifty business at best; very often mere mechanical considerations of particular instruments make the difference. The E-string is the highest on the violin, therefore works in that key will be high-pitched; French horns are most at their ease in E-flat; clarinets in B-flat. But as you journey around the circle of fifths and end up in E-flat minor — six flats — you’ve arrived in music’s no man’s land, an area bleak and unpopulated. Few enough pieces inhabit the realm — a strange and aimless late piano work by Schubert, a spook-haunted Brahms Intermezzo, the two craggy pairs of Preludes and Fugues in Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier, nary a movement by Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven. Later on there’s one monstrously dull String Quartet by Tchaikovsky and then, finally, the last quartet of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 15, as dismal — yet as heart-rending — as any 35-minute expanse in the entire realm of chamber-music masterworks. Four members of the Philharmonic — violinists Bing Wang and Varty Manouelian, violist Meredith Snow, cellist Peter Stumpf — explored the mysteries of No. 15 at a recent Chamber Music Society concert. Fortunately, there was Mozart afterward to serve as balm, but it was the Shostakovich, in a superb performance, that left me the most shaken, and I still am.How explain this unbroken sequence: six movements all marked adagio, funereal in pace and in mood but never boring, never relaxing their hold? They challenge explainers; a couple of years ago Britain’s Théâtre de Complicité and the Emerson Quartet came to UCLA with a kind of live documentary in which that quartet took shape out of tragic and harrowing memory fragments. The stage presentation was a marvelous experience, but no more so than the ensuing simple performance of the work itself — which, as I recall, the Emersons delivered standing up, as if in homage. Tahir Salahov’s painted portrait of Shostakovich dates from the same time as the Quartet — 1974, a year before the composer’s death — and that, too, seems to emerge from the music itself.There is, of course, a problem inherent in this music, and in hearing all music so deeply personal and mysterious. Andrew Porter, whose New Yorker reviews are my constant reading, writes a sad account of a New York concert at which a lap dog in a canvas bag, carried by a woman to a performance of No. 15, began to yap during the final measures. No such horror occurred at Disney Hall, but evidence of human presence was, nevertheless, constantly at hand. Total and all-inclusive audibility is one of the less admirable aspects of the hall’s acoustic splendors. You can write in a figurative sense, as I am wont to do, about the Shostakovich 15th Quartet as music that stops the breath; stopping the sneeze and the cough is, alas, quite another matter.About Mozart’s G-minor Piano Quartet, with its ethereal slow movement, and the burbling delights of his E-flat Quintet for Piano and Winds — both ennobled by the visiting blithe spirit of pianist Leif Ove Andsnes — I will have more to say at our next rendezvous. After the Shostakovich, at least, these two works restored the power and pleasure of normal breathing.
Brighter Lands
Here’s a new name for you: Wilhelm Stenhammar. His music, says conductor Neeme Järvi, “is like Brahms, only better,” and, indeed, it is Järvi who has toiled the most nobly — in concerts and on recordings — to keep the name alive some 80 years later. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s recent performance of Stenhammar’s F-major Serenade was the Philharmonic’s first ever. It formed the centerpiece of an all-Northern program, the least inevitable element of a bill that otherwise included, wouldn’t you bet, the well-trodden Piano Concerto of Edvard Grieg (freshly reconsidered by Andsnes but still Grieg) and — everybody rise — the Finlandia of Sibelius.I am not ready to climb rooftops and proclaim the exhumation of the Stenhammar Serenade as the rebirth of a cruelly neglected genius from the past. Furthermore, if you’ve been following these lines over the years, you should know how easy it would be to compose better music than Brahms. But this 35-minute effusion of Stenhammar’s is a thoroughly attractive piece, enough so to make you wonder how many other big orchestral works are lurking out there, denied recognition because they come from the “wrong” country, or from composers who can’t also afford a press agent. Where is our Bulgarian repertory? Or Icelandic? Or Portuguese?Stenhammar was Swedish. His Serenade dates from around 1914. As with most composers of Northern persuasion — Sibelius included — it was a trip to Italy that warmed his creative juices, and this the Serenade makes delightfully clear. Despite the informality suggested by the title, it is a big, expansive work including a full percussion contingent. The first and last movements make the broadest statements, but I find the three connected inner movements the most original and the most charming: a moonlit waltz, a frisky scherzo and an ethereal nocturne. The last few pages, a hilarious change of pace reminiscent of, let’s say, the very end of Der Rosenkavalier, are the best of all. If I detected, as I think I did, some real affection in Salonen’s performance, let this be a prod to continue his Stenhammar researches. The Philharmonic, the Times’ Ginell had it, “betrayed some unease with its difficulties.” Curious, the coven of musical second-stringers at that journal. Do you suppose they invent those wacko opinions just to fill the space?Obiter dictum: God bless It came up with a used copy of the Stenhammar Serenade (Järvi, on BIS), which bore a sticker: “Discard from the Milton, MA, Public Library.” Nostalgia: 1935, a lady at the Milton Public Library helping an eager 11-year-old with research for the Milton Junior High Stamp Club Poster Competition. (I won.)

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