November 10, 2015
Strangely, for a prolific composer of great importance, Ernst Krenek is almost never heard from on concert programs hereabouts. The Zemlinsky Quartet from the Czech Republic mitigated the drought with a performance of Krenek’s String Quartet No. 7, centerpiece of a program that also held works by Mendelssohn and Janáček, for the San Antonio Chamber Music Society on Nov. 8 in Temple Beth-El.
The Zemlinsky was established in 1994 by students at the Prague Conservatory and the Academy of Performing Arts Prague. Among the quartets that coached the Zemlinsky in its early years was the Pražák, which has made several visits to San Antonio on this series. Like the Pražák, the Zemlinsky displayed extraordinary fit and finish in its nicely matched timbres, creamy sound and ensemble precision. The players, all of them top-notch, were František Souček and Petr Střížek (violin), Petr Holman (viola) and Vladimir Fortin (cello).
Ernst Krenek was born in 1900 in Vienna, where, in his teens, he studied composition under the late-Romantic composer Franz Schreker. In 1920 he followed Schreker to Berlin, then spent time in Switzerland and Paris, all the while encountering new styles and making new friends. Among the former was jazz, which he imitated in his best-known work, the opera Jonny spielt auf. Among the latter was Arnold Schoenberg, whose 12-tone system Krenek adopted (and adapted) in the 1930s. He remained a non-dogmatic serialist for the remainder of his long career. Krenek was visiting the United States when Nazi Germany annexed Austria, making his return impossible. He taught briefly at Vassar College, then at Hamline University in St. Paul from 1939 to 1947, when he quit teaching (except for occasional visiting gigs) and settled in California.
His String Quartet No. 7, composed in 1943-44, is a 12-tone work that exhibits the high intellect, rigor and rhythmic vitality of Schoenberg, but with a larger admixture of Romantic or Expressionist feeling in the melodic contours and, often, the rich chordal harmonies, which are used in a way that approximates traditional voice-leading. Some of the music is spiky, but the adagio, the second of its five movements, is lovely, tender and rather sad, and the finale is a lively dance.
The troupe closed with Leoš Janáček’s shape-shifting String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters,” which the Pražák had included here in their 1995 and 2001 programs. As one expects, the players were fully at home in their compatriot’s idiom, so tied to the rhythms of Czech speech. They brought a wonderful buoyancy to the adagio; in the faster movements, they didn’t match the Pražák’s ferocity (as I remember it), but they were certainly demonstrative enough, and one couldn’t ask for greater unity. As in the Krenek, the Zemlinsky’s impeccable intonation and finely gauged balances kept the complex harmonies sounding fresh.
The concert opened with Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. in E-flat in a performance that was exquisitely crafted but, to my ear, understated and cautious.
The Zemlinsky remained in town the following day to play for students at Clark High School and, perhaps more remarkably, at Sunshine Cottage School for Deaf Children. The Sunshine Cottage children, all in elementary grades, were equipped with cochlear implants or hearing aids and thus could hear the music and the explanatory remarks by the Zemlinsky’s violist, Petr Holman, though they might have had trouble with his accented English. The quartet played at center court in the school’s gymnasium, where the acoustics for chamber music were surprisingly good. Mr. Holman’s colleagues were.
The 7th brought the return of an old friend, the pianist Rick Rowley, with violinist Brian Lewis, to open the San Antonio International Piano Competition’s recital series, this season dedicated to all of Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and violin. The program, in the Concert Hall at the University of the Incarnate Word, held the Sonatas No. 2 in A, No. 4 in A Minor and No. 10 in G.
The transnonymous Mr. Rowley — way back when, he went by ”Eugene” — had a long association with the Round Top Festival in the 1970s and ‘80s. Currently he teaches vocal accompanying at the Butler School of Music at UT-Austin.
In his performances at Round Top and in San Antonio during the 1980s, he had consistently impressed with the freshness, vigor and engaging amiability of his playing. For a long time nothing more was heard from him: He explained after the Nov. 7 concert that injuries received in a “horse accident” had forced a years-long hiatus from the piano.
No trace of a physical problem was audible in his technique, which seemed more secure than ever in the Beethoven concert. His lithe, even, crystalline runs, rhythmic acuity and big dynamics conveyed the scores in high definition. The old vivacity and color remained fully in place.
The only complaint to be lodged against the performance was a stylistic discrepancy between Mr. Rowley and his Butler School of Music colleague.
Mr. Lewis’s minimal vibrato was appropriate to this music, but on the whole he stepped more heavily than Mr. Rowley, and the violinist’s aggressive tone sometimes elbowed the piano, especially in the Sonata No. 2, which finds Beethoven still within the ambit of Classical style. The players were in closer accord in No. 4, composed just a couple of years later but seemingly in another (and very strange) universe. Here, both players were similarly muscular in the stormy outer movements and took similar approaches to the coy wit of the central andante.
Oh, and thanks to Kevin Salfen, associate professor of music at UIW, for the excellent program notes.
The Beethoven sonata series continues on Feb. 13 with pianist Baya Kakouberi and violinist Gary Levinson playing No. 1 in D, No. 3 in E-flat and No. 9 in A (“Kreutzer”). On April 9, pianist Sejoon Park and violinist Eric Gratz offer No. 5 in F (“Spring”), No. 6 in A, No. 7 in C Minor and No. 8 in G. Both concerts start at 8 p.m. in the UIW Concert Hall.
The Zemlinsky Quartet, in a student outreach concert at Sunshine Cottage School for Deaf Children