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Saturday, August 26, 2017

A More Perfect Mozart at Union

From the Vault Dept.: Here’s a visit to Union College’s Memorial Chapel for a performance by the superb Nash Ensemble that I reviewed for the Schenectady Gazette in 1990.


LISTENING TO MOZART in an ornate, antique hall while watching a steady snowfall through oversized windows is the most peaceful kind of fun you could ask for on a winter afternoon.

The Nash Ensemble
While cars smacked into one another outside on Union Street, the Nash Ensemble worked wonders with three of the juiciest pieces in the chamber-music repertory.

Anthony Pay came onstage with an odd-looking instrument that he helpfully identified as a clarinet such as might have been used in Mozart’s time. It was made of boxwood, blonde in contrast to the usual black, “and I like to think of the difference between this and the modern clarinet as the difference between a vintage car and a modern Ferrari. Newer models are more powerful and more able to cope with the dynamics demanded in today’s concert hall.”

But there’s the danger of losing something quiet and sweet as the old-style clarinet gets neglected.

He proved just how gorgeous that instrument can sound by playing the Clarinet Quintet in A Major, in a “conjectural version” that adds some low notes probably performed by premiere soloist Anton Stadler on a specially-designed “basset clarinet.”

With violinists Marcia Crayford and Jeremy Williams, violist Roger Chase and cellist Christopher Van Kampen, Pay frolicked Pan-like through the music. There’s a mature earthiness about this piece, but it’s nevertheless shot through with unmistakable Mozart sparkle.

The composer has a way of concealing his music’s technical demands behind the happy smile of harmony, and the Nash Ensemble isn’t one to show how hard the players are working. Still, there were clarinetists in the house who watched Pay’s work with awe.

As the pleasant virtuosity of the killer variations that end the piece were still ringing in the hall, we took an abrupt-seeming turn with music by Arnold Schoenberg: specifically, an arrangement by Anton Webern of the Chamber Symphony, Op. 9, for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano.

It’s not as great a contrast as all that. Schoenberg’s music is lyrical, though not in the long-lined Mozart sense. Neither her nor Webern were looking to use the traditional singing voices of the instruments exclusively. Violins often growled in a gritty whine, keening in opposition to, say, the metallic cry of the flute or the clarinet’s round-voiced sobs.

Yet the piece is made up of lyrical phrases with pop-song simplicity, interspersed with tritone pile-ups. And it’s written with firm, classical precision that Mozart would have appreciated.

Flutist Philippa Davies and pianist Ian Brown joined Pay, Crayford and Van Kampen for a show of extraordinary playing and interpretive skill.

Placing the Chamber Symphony alongside the Clarinet Quintet is a brilliant programming stroke. Schoenberg isn’t listened to enough by the nervous traditionalists; as an audience neighbor observed at the end of the piece, “A few more performances like this could make him popular!”

Another Quintet was the final work, this time the big romantic one for piano and strings by Cesar Franck. It’s a piece that also has a kinship with the Schoenberg sound, as Franck already was pushing the instrumental sounds in unique directions.

From the crunchy opening chords of the strings, answered with surprising daintiness by the piano, to the devil-take-all finale, this is a work with the brooding intensity of a film noir soundtrack. It needs to be played with passion tempered by the right amount of wit.

Brown almost stole the show at the piano, given the streams of showy arpeggios that seem to emerge, unending, but this is an ensemble of stars combined to make the most of the music. It was exhilarating. Or did I say that already?

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 22 January 1990

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