Geniality and Eloquence in Chamber Music Premieres

United StatesUnited States Maneval and Wernick: Charles Abramovic (piano), Daedalus Quartet, Field Hall, Curtis Institute, Philadelphia, 23.9.2016. (BJ)

ManevalLifecycles: Sonata in an improvisatory style (Piano Sonata No.3) Op.34; The Unfolding Answer – String Quartet No.5 Op.61

Wernick – Piano Trio No.2 (The Traits of Messina); Pieces of Eight

In advance of its regular season opener, scheduled for 13 October, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society treated its public to a free concert featuring works by two composers long associated with the organization: Philip Maneval, its Executive Director, and Richard Wernick, with whom he studied at the University of Pennsylvania.

The two Maneval pieces on the program were receiving world premieres, and between them came Wernick’s Second Piano Trio (not previously heard in the city though its dedicatees, the Cleonice Trio, played it last year in nearby Wayne) and his Pieces of Eight for piano, which was commissioned by the Society.

Maneval has been commendably stingy about allowing performances of his own music at PCMS concerts, but over the years I have heard and been impressed by a couple of his works. The piano work that opened this program has waited more than 10 years for a public hearing; the string quartet is more recent, having been composed just last year. I found Lifecycles a touch less individual than my previous encounters with his music had led me to expect. Assertions and Avoidances, the first two of its four movements, have a way of wandering off into the sort of skittering rapid figuration that serves as a lingua franca in much of what I think of as Modern-Music-with-Capital-Letters. But with Reminiscences and the concluding Realizations the authentic Maneval voice makes a welcome reappearance, while certainly the whole work is expertly crafted.

Last year’s String Quartet No.5, by contrast, was a pleasure throughout. This is an entirely personal and highly satisfying essay in a contemporary idiom that owes nothing to trends or pretensions. Generally smooth in texture and sustained in expression, it combines euphony with a willingness to explore subtle harmonic shifts, and it bespeaks an individuality open to the impact of other minds but never obscured by such outside influences.

Wernick’s individuality could never be placed in doubt: this highly distinguished senior figure has always been the cat who walked by himself. In the Piano Trio No.2, written four years ago in tribute (as the Traits of Messina subtitle indicates) to his wife of 60 years, Beatrice Messina, he walks with characteristic certainty of technique and at the same time with more geniality, wit, and lightness of touch than can be found in the more saturnine among his earlier works.

Pieces of Eight, composed in 2013, is a set of pieces each related to one or another among Wernick’s colleagues and friends. By turns dashing and more sustained, they are all pithily and pleasantly written, but I think the gem of the set is the seventh piece, titled “ . . . the dying of the light.” Commemorating his friend Jerry Kagan, assistant principal cello of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for more than four decades, Wernick here eschews any diversions into rapid contrast, and achieves an elegiac eloquence that is all the more moving for its modest simplicity.

With both composers present in the hall, the evening’s performances by Charles Abramovic—himself portrayed in the last of Wernick’s eight pieces—and the Daedalus Quartet maintained the level of expressive and technical excellence that is almost invariably associated with PCMS’s concerts. This was a worthy celebration of 30 years’ superb concert-giving.

Bernard Jacobson

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