Last night San Francisco Performances offered its subscribers its annual free gift concert. The title of the event was Curtis on Tour, and it featured two students and one faculty member from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, one of the most prestigious and selective institutions of musical learning in the United States. The students were clarinetist Kelly Coyle and violist Ayane Kozasa; and they were joined by Ignat Solzhenitsyn, a member of the piano faculty. This ensemble performed as a trio for all but one of the works on the program.
The group took the bold move of beginning with the most provocative of their selections, György Kurtág’s six-movement suite Hommage à R. Sch., his Opus 15d, completed in 1990 but with drafts dating back to the Seventies. This composition abounds in enigmas and cross-references that extend from the musical to the typographical. This begins with the title’s acknowledgement of an “abbreviated” Robert Schumann, whose Opus 132 “Märchenerzählungen” was also scored for clarinet, viola, and piano. The titles of the movements are elliptical, shifting between German and Hungarian, abounding the parentheses, square brackets, and ellipsis dots. (This subtlety was lost in the program book, which give English translations of the titles with minimal typographical embellishment.) Abbreviation lies at the heart of the structure: Each of the first five movements takes less than a minute to perform. Those movements are followed by the concluding movement, whose duration requires more time than the combined durations of the first five.
It is in that final movement, however, that Kurtág drops his most obvious cross-reference, since its title is “Abschied” (parting). Those with a serious interest in the music of Gustav Mahler (and one can certainly find a lot of them in this city when Mahler’s music is performed at Davies Symphony Hall) should catch on pretty quickly to the game that Kurtág is playing. The overall architecture of six movements, the last of which encompasses the time scale of everything preceding it, is that of Das Lied von der Erde (whose final movement is entitled “Der Abschied”). Sure enough, there is an alternation of fast and slow movements, with the fast getting faster and the slow getting slower (a design that Alban Berg also adopted in his “Lyric Suite”). The printed text may say “Schumann” and summon his fictitious creations, Eusebius, Florestan (both of whom are represented only by their initials in the text titles), Johannes Kreisler, and Meister Raro, along with a passing references to Guillame de Machaut; but the spirit that “haunts” this score is Mahler, whose massive architectures have been distilled down to an almost microscopic scale.
Fortunately, the Curtis crew did not present this as a puzzle for the audience to solve. They took the position that a faithfully precise execution of the score would allow the music to speak for itself. I should here make the disclaimer that I have had the good fortune to hear this piece many times, both in several performances at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and through the ECM recording made by Eduard Brunner (clarinet), Kim Kashkashian (viola), and Robert Levin (piano). I cannot pretend to grasp all of the details in this music; but I have developed an appreciation of what makes a performance “work,” particularly after having observed Kashkashian coach it in a Master Class at our Conservatory. In this context I found great satisfaction in the Curtis performance, executed with a clarity through which Kurtág could play all the games he had devised, allowing the attentive listener to pick up on at least a few of them.
This decision to begin with Kurtág was nicely complemented by the decision to conclude in a similar spirit of wit, this time taken from an earlier century and far less cryptic. The conclusion was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 498 trio, whose title, “Kegelstatt,” refers to the sport of bowling. The connotation may involve the good spirits of a sporting pastime; but there is an ample supply of clever wit in how Mozart shapes his phrases and, particularly in the first movement, his judicious use of silences to pace those phrases. This trio was completed in Vienna in 1786, the year after he composed the six string quartets he dedicated to Joseph Haydn. In this trio Mozart is clearly nodding at Haydn not just in admiration but with an eye to advancing his colleague’s inventiveness down new paths. The games in the music go far beyond the bowling alley, and Mozart’s sense of play made a perfect balance to Kurtág’s.
That sense of wit was less present in the inner offerings of the program. One would probably not expect it in the Opus 120, Number 1 sonata in F minor by Johannes Brahms, played last night in the viola version by Kozasa. However, the meticulous precision that Kozasa and Solzhenitsyn brought to Kurtág did not serve Brahms as effectively. There was, without a doubt, an impeccable clarity in their execution; but that clarity did not seem to allow for the dark rhetoric within which the music of this sonata resides. This is not to suggest that this is music that requires highly emotive expression, but last night’s performance never seemed to get beyond fidelity to the marks on paper. Performance of Brahms must find expression beyond that fidelity, and this execution never quite achieved that goal.
The trio also performed the suite Book of Days by Daron A. Hagen, a Curtis graduate who has also taught there. The program book included two paragraphs by Hagen, purportedly about this music but far more interested in playing Kurtág’s text games with enigmas and cross-references. However, while Kurtág’s music brings a certain accessibility to his word games, neither words nor music take us very far where Hagen is concerned. Many of his movements, each named for a different day of the week, are pleasant enough, sometimes jazzy, but usually a bit too innocuous. There is also a somewhat tiresome shadow of cliché in the final movement: Must Sunday always be associated with a hymn? In another setting Hagen’s suite might have made for a more substantive listening experience. However, in the context of the combined wits of Mozart and Kurtág and the expressiveness of Brahms, his suite came across as a mild diversion that had little to add to the conversation.