CLASSCOL

[*] STEVE: This comes in early because I’m off to Japan next week, (leaving Sunday 12/29) along with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra for its concerts in Osaka (New Year’s Eve) and Tokyo. We get back on January 8, so my column for the 12th will be a report on the tour (Jon knows about this). I’ll have photographs from Japan fed-exed to you directly. [F/L] Seekers after the uncommon experience in the realm of chamber music have a rewarding month ahead. Just in the next couple of weeks, for example, three separate groups will bring in three marvelous and large-scale works of Dvorak: the E-flat-major Piano Quartet (played by the Los Angeles Piano Quartet at Doheny Mansion on Jan. 10th), the G-major String Quartet (by the Chester Quartet at the Southwest Museum on the afternoon of the 12th) and the A-major Piano Quintet (with Mona Golabek and the Cleveland Quartet at the Wilshire-Ebell Theater on the 15th). The Doheny and Southwest Museum concerts are, as you’ve probably guessed, part of the Da Camera Society’s “Chamber Music in Historic Sites” series. Historic sounds as well as sites. Before we get to any of these marvelous works, none of them heard all that often, consider another chamber concert scheduled for next Sunday (January 12 at 7 p.m. at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall), the start of the new season of the Music for Mischa concerts. That program offers a work even less often heard than any of the Dvoraks. Why is it, pray, that Ludwig van Beethoven’s C-major String Quintet has virtually disappeared from the repertory, both live and recorded? Against the dozens of recorded performances of Beethoven’s quartets, only one is currently listed of this quintet, and that on a small imported label. Ask an interesting question: if Beethoven had died, or stopped composing, after completing this particular work (Opus 29 in the chronological list), where would he rank today among composers? He would have had one symphony to his name, a brace of six string quartets, two piano concertos and quite a few piano sonatas. The symphonies, concertos and quartets would probably still hold their places as clear descendants of 18th-century models, with enough originality to establish Beethoven as a chap who might, someday soon, have blazed exciting new musical trails. The piano sonatas — the “Pathetique” and the “Moonlight” in particular — are even more clearly the work of a young composer eager to kick out against the restrictions of classical forms. Then there’s this C-major Quintet. The work dates from 1801; Beethoven was 31, and had already begun to make some noise around Vienna. Even so, the very start of this work might have startled its first hearers: Beethoven’s way of pushing his opening theme up the chromatic scale, rudely and forcefully. The effect is a little like that of a serpent slowly uncoiling. That’s startling enough. Move on to the slow movement. Mozart would have smiled at this, a haunting, songlike melody hovering over a simple accompaniment. Beethoven’s instrumental music doesn’t often seize the listener’s power to breathe this kind of melody that seems to imitate the intensity of human song; he would do so again in one or two of the slow movements of the later string quartets. He does it here, in this C-major Quintet, for the first time. Is this, then, the sort of music we, and the record companies, can choose to overlook? The finale is famous; it gave the entire work its nickname, “Storm.” It does, indeed, burst upon you: rolling, snarling tremors that sweep across all five performers. Then — surprise! — the storm is choked off, with a butter-wouldn’t-melt minuet that sneaks in out of nowhere. The storm returns. So does that minuet, now greatly changed. The sweet dance has grown oratorical, even petulant, and it is swept aside at the end with a violent harmonic change. Here is the shadow of the Beethoven to come! All credit, then, to cellist Robert Martin for pulling this remarkable, and remarkably little-known, work of Beethoven’s out of the shadows. This is the third “Music for Mischa” series at UCLA, produced by Martin and named for his late friend and colleague Mischa Schneider, cellist of the legendary Budapest Quartet. The quality of the programs — four this season — is worthy of the man whose name they bear. We could make the same case for Dvorak that we do for Beethoven: that we know many of his works all too well, at the expense of other works we know all too little. The G-major String Quartet is a case in point. The Dvorak quartet we know best is the F-major, subtitled “American” because he composed it during his sojourn in this country. The G-major is a later work, and its wisdom and intense beauty are the work of a man who has pondered deeply on the nature of his own art. It is a quiet work; the exuberance of the early Dvorak has given way to a deep calm, of the sort that often overtakes artists (Brahms of the Clarinet Quintet, Shakespeare of “The Tempest”) late in their careers. The scherzo does, to be sure, mirror the composer’s love of his own country’s folk dances; the slow movement, on the other hand, transcends all boundaries with Dvorak’s gorgeous theme and its ensuing variations. Again, this G-major Quartet is virtually ignored; a single recording exists, as opposed to 18 of the “American.” The Piano Quartet and Piano Quintet are full of that aforementioned exuberance; this is music that, from the first note, settles you back in your seat with the message that you’re in for a wonderful ride. Do both works go on a little long for their length? To be sure; yet in this music, as in all Dvorak, you’ll dig long and hard before you find a note you would willingly spare.