Ensemble Connect at Carnegie Hall mines the Weimar Era for rare musical jewels

United StatesUnited States Various: Ensemble Connect. Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall, 9.4.2024. (RP)

Ensemble Connect at Carnegie Hall © Fadi Kheir Photography

Erwin Schulhoff Concertino for Flute, Viola and Double Bass
Weill – String Quartet No.1, Op.8
BergLyric Suite
Gershwin – ‘Lullaby’

Carnegie Hall’s focus on the Weimar Era this season has offered exciting forays into the epoch and its music. Ensemble Connect’s contribution was a fascinating mix of chamber music by composers who defined the zeitgeist of those years in Europe and America. And as was to be expected, the young string players of Ensemble Connect performed brilliantly and made every piece a singular musical adventure.

The focus on the Weimar Era has brought to Carnegie Hall many unfamiliar works by both well-known composers and those who are all but forgotten. Often, the pieces that are performed were composed during the pivotal early stages of their careers. There were to be no late-career autumnal bursts of glory for Erwin Schulhoff, Kurt Weill, Alban Berg or George Gershwin, whose music was heard at this concert – none would live past the age of 50.

The Austro-Czech composer and pianist Erwin Schulhoff died from tuberculosis at the age of 48 in Wülzburg prison in Bavaria. He was Jewish, but for the Nazis the fact that he was both a communist and a Soviet citizen was equally vexing. With immigration to the West all but impossible after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939, he opted to take his family to the Soviet Union. Their passports arrived too late to save him.

Schulhoff’s experiences as a conscript in the Austrian Army during World War I influenced both his political views and his musical style. After the war, he abandoned the post-Romantic style of his youth. By the time he composed the Concertino for Flute, Viola and Double Bass in 1925, he had also left behind the aesthetics of the Second Viennese School for those of French Neo-Classicism, Slavonic folk music and American styles ranging from jazz to ragtime.

The melodies, colors and rhythms of folk tunes pepper the four-movement Concertino. It was the perfect vehicle for flautist Anjali Shinde, violist Isabella Bignasca and double bassist Marguerite Cox to display their individual talents and communicative skills as an ensemble. The second movement, Furiant: Allegro Furioso, was a brilliant ride with Shinde on piccolo and Bignasca and Cox serving as the rhythm section.

Composed in 1923, Kurt Weill’s String Quartet No.1 was the work that first brought him international attention. His teacher, Ferruccio Busoni, hailed his 23-year-old student’s efforts for its ‘splendid qualities’. Weill fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and was the only one of the four composers here who lived to see the demise of Hitler and the Third Reich.

Cellist Frankie Carr repeated Weill’s famous maxim in introducing the piece: ‘I have never acknowledged the difference between serious music and light music. There is only good music and bad music.’ Carr quickly added that the String Quartet is one of the ‘good ones’. It may not sound like the musical theater works that brought Weill fame, but his wit and daring are always evident.

Carr and Ramón Carrero-Martínez were joined by violinists Isabelle Ai Durrenberger and David Bernat in a performance of the Weill that was notable for its depth of expression. In the opening Introduktion, Durrenberger and Bernat displayed the beauty and finesse of their playing in some of the most lyrical passages of the quartet. In the Scherzo and Choralphantasie, it was Carr who impressed with the richness of the tone he drew from his cello. Ensemble Connect quartet’s playing in the contrapuntal writing in the latter was exceptional for its precision and elegance.

Introducing Berg’s Lyric Suite, violinist David Bernat offered the salient advice that if you had not already read the program notes, ‘don’t’. As he explained, Berg composed the piece in the mid-1920s and, for the next half century, it was performed and received on solely musical terms. In 1977, some forty years after the composer’s death in 1935, its ‘secret program’ was revealed. Bernat suggested that it was best just to absorb the music and ignore the backstory.

The tale is fascinating, however, as Berg intended the Lyric Suite to be a memorial to a long, passionate, extramarital affair that he kept secret from his wife, Helene, who died in 1976 with no knowledge of it. Berg had inscribed an early published edition of the score to his paramour with the words ‘a small monument to a great love’.

Bernat was joined by violinist Rubén Rengel, an Ensemble Connect alum, violist Isabella Bignasca and cellist Thapelo Masita in a searing, probing performance of the Lyric Suite. Berg arranged the ‘romantic’ movements for string orchestra, but the most beautiful and moving is the soft Largo desolato, composed in severe 12-tone style. In this performance, there were moments of great beauty throughout, especially in the exquisite playing of the violins. The final measures, however, were the most beautiful and poignant as the music faded away into silence.

Gershwin epitomizes the Roaring Twenties in America. The child of Russian and Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, he straddled the worlds of popular and classical music. Weill’s words on light versus serious music apply to Gershwin in spades. Yet he struggled to make his mark in the world of classical music after his success on Broadway.

‘Lullaby’ for string quartet was composed around 1920 when Gershwin was still pounding out songs on Tin Pan Alley. It was most likely an academic exercise by a composer still in his early twenties. ‘Lullaby’ was performed a few times in private settings by friends during Gershwin’s lifetime, and it was forgotten for years after his death at the age of 40 in 1937.

Ira Gershwin, the composer’s brother, described the short, somewhat repetitive piece as ‘charming and kind’. That it was, and beautiful too as performed by Durrenberger, Bernat, Carrero-Martínez and Masita.

Rick Perdian

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