United States Various: Rubén Rengel, Stephanie Zyzak (violins), Halam Kim (viola) Laura Andrade (cello), Amir Farsi (flute), Yasmina Spiegelberg (clarinet), Nicholas Hooks (bassoon), Cort Roberts (French horn), Joanne Kang (piano), Ensemble Connect. Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York, 21.2.2023. (RP)
Higdon – Dark Wood
Mozart – Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat major, K.452
Michi Wiancko – 7 Kinships
R. Schumann – Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op.44
Ensemble Connect returned to Weill Recital Hall with a program of chamber music that was as exciting to watch as it was to hear. As usual, the musicians took the ‘connect’ aspect of the ensemble’s mission to heart, with one of them introducing each piece. Their remarks weren’t just verbal program notes but served as an invitation to view the compositions as a performer might.
The first piece was Jennifer Higdon’s Dark Wood. Composed in 2001, it is scored for the unusual combination of string trio plus bassoon. Higdon’s goal was to feature the bassoon as a solo instrument on a par with the others, as opposed to its customary supporting role in a chamber ensemble or an orchestra. The title refers to the material from which the bassoon is made.
The first sounds heard were burps of sound played by bassoonist Nicholas Hooks, answered by the other instruments. A frenzied romp, it is enhanced with special effects such as screechy sounds from the strings, prepared piano and ethereal harmonics yielding to a lyrical interlude in which Hooks played a wistful melody. Although the bassoon is featured prominently, the other three have their parts – Higdon just made it a matter of balance.
We tend to think almost every measure that Mozart composed is the work of a genius, but he was a more discerning critic of his own efforts. He, however, singled out the Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat major as the best work that he had written in his entire life. Granted he was only 28, and more would come before his death seven years later, but there were over 400 entries in his personal catalog at that point so he had some basis for comparison.
Mozart scored the quintet for the unusual combination of piano, clarinet, oboe, bassoon and horn. A flute was substituted for the oboe, which lent a lighter, somewhat more refined air to the performance. Flutist Amir Farsi played with his usual elan, Cort Roberts produced meltingly beautiful sounds on the French horn and clarinetist Yasmina Spiegelberg played with passion. Pianist Joanne Kang provided the bedrock for this energetic yet lyrical rendition.
The concert also marked the New York premiere of Michi Wiancko’s 7 Kinships, a Carnegie Hall commission for Ensemble Connect. It was the third premiere in the span of a week, with earlier performances in Saratoga Springs and Philadelphia.
Wiancko describes 7 Kinships for flute, clarinet, bassoon and horn as a study of solitude in seven short movements within a group context, especially within the social interplay of virtuoso instrumentalists. She explores musically the struggle to find beauty in solitude through the intervals of the seventh and ninth, which for her have a quality of longing.
In 7 Kinships, Wiancko created fiery musical dialogues as well as expressive solos for each of the four instruments. Her ability to make wonderful musical colors, even when working with only four instruments, is impressive. It is the quieter moments, such as the bassoon solo in the fourth movement or that played by the clarinet in the fifth, however, which are the soul of the work and reveal Wiancko’s appreciation for the beauty of solitude.
Much like Mozart, Robert Schumann was at the height of his powers when he composed the Piano Quintet in E-flat major, but he knew time was not on his side. Only 32, he was already suffering from bouts of depression that would progress into insanity and his early death. The E-flat major Quintet, with its exuberance and energy, belies none of this foreshadowing of the future.
In his introduction, violist Halam Kim read a love letter from Robert to his wife, Clara. It provided a lens through which to experience the quintet. Even at its darkest moments, this is a testament to life, beauty and love.
The ensemble was as polished and fine as one would expect. Solos were beautiful and beguiling, beginning with the exchanges between cellist Laura Andrade and Kim on the viola. Violinist Rubén Rengel’s playing was notable for his lean, silvery tone and elegance. Kang’s playing was pure joy, especially in the brisk third movement.
The concluding double fugue, with each entrance clearly and forcefully articulated, was an exhilarating conclusion to another exceptional recital from Ensemble Connect.