Review: Chamber Music Festival opens with a wallop
LEV BRATISHENKO, SPECIAL TO MONTREAL GAZETTE
The Montreal Chamber Music Festival has come a long way from a few mountaintop concerts. Today, it has its 20th anniversary season introduced by the lieutenant-governor with a bewildered conscript rigid at his side. Now that’s a local institution.
I don’t know about the rest of the audience, but we were there to hear the Dover Quartet. These young musicians play with remarkable attentiveness and an astonishingly even tone, as if they were four limbs of one instrument; they also have the rarity of a strong and distinctive viola. It’s hard to think of a better group for Viktor Ullmann’s transporting String Quartet No. 3.
Ullmann was a student of Schönberg, though you would hardly know it from this piece, which is representative of his later style. It was written in 1943 in Theresienstadt, a walled city (now in the Czech Republic) that the Nazis turned into a special concentration camp with a cultural scene so that the Red Cross could visit and contradict the strangely persistent rumours of death camps. Prisoners included conductor Rafael Schächter, pianist Alice Herz-Sommer, Ullman, and many visual artists: a survey of European high culture. Ullman was killed in 1944, but you can find several albums that include some of the works he composed in Theresienstadt.
The quartet opens deceptively, a simple and unnerving melody that hides the sardonic energy to come. It made me think of children playing among fresh corpses. The Dover were magnificently crisp in the second movement. Then the first theme returns to reset our ears before a haunting melody that’s slowly introduced by the viola, which sounded hoarse in a perfect way, like a tuberculose cough that can’t be stifled and spreads.
This painful beauty was followed by Schubert Impromptus No. 3 and No. 4, D.935. The name is a publisher’s invention and there’s nothing unprepared about this elaborately constructed music, some of which was written for the booming amateur market and some of which, like No. 4, is very difficult to play. Both got laboured interpretations from pianist Marc-André Hamelin, who seemed to be compensating for muddiness in one hand by trying to smash the piano with the other.
The banality continued in the next piece, an agonizing mid-life crisis that is César Franck’s Quintet in F minor. It’s an act of drunken bravado that ends in tears, the classical musical version of Uncle Wayne’s new red Mustang. It brought out the worst in the Dover, who were forced into repeated unison lines at triple-forte volume just to be heard over Hamelin who, in this piece, played with exactly as much monstrous grandiosity as was written. If only Franck had been a drummer.
I wish the festival many more anniversaries but fewer concerts like this one. By the end it was hard to remember the subtlety of Dover’s performance in the quartet, and the usually generous audience rushed for the exits.
The Dover return on Friday for some Bartok and Dvorak, and Brahms’s clarinet quintet with Alexander Fiterstein. Another recommended concert is Thursday, June 18, when the Ariel Quartet with David Krakauer, Rachel Desoer, Jonathan Crow, and David Jalbert perform rarely heard works by Messiaen and Golijov. Details at www.festivalmontreal.org