Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), violinist Donald Weilerstein and his wife, pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, concluded their Chamber Music Masters residency with a recital program. While they opened the program as a duo, performing George Enescu’s Opus 28 suite of childhood memories, Impressions d’enfance, the high point of the evening was the second half of the concert, in which they performed Edward Elgar’s Opus 84 piano quintet in A minor with three SFCM students. One of those students, cellist Emanuel Evans, also partnered with violinist Noémy Gagnon-Lefrenais and pianist Allegra Chapman for a performance of Charles Ives trio prior to the intermission. The remaining students in the Elgar were violinist Douglas Kwon and violist Kristin Zimmerman.
Opus 84 was the last of Elgar’s only three major chamber music compositions, all composed at the end of the First World War between 1918 and 1919. It was preceded by the Opus 82 violin sonata in E minor and the Opus 83 string quartet, also in E minor, both completed in 1918. Note the predominance of minor keys. The “Great War” had a devastating effect on Elgar, revealed through all three of these compositions, as well as the Opus 85 cello concerto in E minor, also completed in 1919. After that, with a few minor exceptions, his voice as a composer was silenced until his death in 1934.
In what might almost be taken as an instance of Carl Jung’s synchronicity concept, last Sunday, just before the Weilersteins began their SFCM residency, the Chamber Music Series recital of the San Francisco Symphony concluded with Johannes Brahms’ Opus 60 piano quartet in C minor, one of the darkest pieces of nineteenth-century chamber music. In many ways Elgar’s Opus 84 is a reflection on Brahms at his darkest, even to the point of following the earlier composer’s approach to full-handed pianism. As I observed at the time, a key virtue of Sunday’s performance was the ability of pianist Akimi Fukuhara to keep all of that pianistic bombast in balance with the rest of the ensemble; and Vivian Hornik Weilerstein brought that same virtue to last night’s performance.
This is not to suggest that Elgar’s quintet resides in the shadow of those practices that Brahms established. Indeed, Opus 84 shows a mastery of economic use of thematic material across the entire composition with a capability that Brahms rarely extended beyond the scope of a single movement. In spite of such structural sophistication, however, this is music that depends critically on the intensity of its emotional rhetoric; and Vivian’s approach to balance, as well as the general interplay with the three participating students, did much to heighten that intensity without ever overplaying it. If Opus 84 was Elgar “clearing his throat” before the “swan song” of the Opus 85 cello concerto, last night’s performance could not have been more expressive of his frame of mind.
Enescu’s Opus 28 was clearly also intended as an intensely personal account. One might say that the composition involves an unlocking of childhood memories similar to that experienced by Marcel Proust when he dipped that madeleine into his tea. Indeed, in a manner similar to the nature of human memory, the boundaries between the ten episodes of the suite are often ill-defined, allowing them to flow into each other and even, at times, overlap. Nevertheless, this is music that is heavily dependent on the words describing each of the movements; and there is some sense that most of the thematic content is overworked beyond its capacity to impress.
These weaknesses might have been less evident had they not been followed by the Ives trio, which is a far stronger memory piece. Indeed, his gift for conveying the impression of everything happening at once may be one of the most clinical accounts of just how disordered human memory is. As Sigmund Freud observed so perceptively, even the recollection of a dream is less an act of memory and more one of creating a narrative to bring coherence to all of that disorder. In Freud’s approach to analysis, the key to understanding the patient came from that narrative, rather than the dream itself.
From that point of view, one might say that Ives assaults the listener with the “raw memory experience” without the benefit of coherence imposed through narrative. What results amounts to a roller-coaster ride whose abrupt shifts in velocity are all driven by an unchecked flood of free associations. At the end of the day, the best any performer can do is keep up with those shifts, although, as I suggested yesterday, one tends to recognize and anticipate those shifts in terms of identifying distinctions between song and accompaniment in Ives’ thick textures. Last night’s students had no visible problems in keeping up with Ives, even when he unleashed his inventiveness at full throttle; and this made for a striking comparison of “presentations of self” (as Erving Goffman put it) from two composers bearing witness to the early decades of the twentieth century.