DEER VALLEY CHAMBER PLAYERS with violinist Manuel Ramos, cellists Terry King, Catherine Lehr, pianist John Jensen, Snow Park Lodge, Deer Valley, Aug. 14, 3 p.m.The name Anton Arensky (1861-1906) does not loom large on the American concert scene today. (One gathers he is better represented in his native Russia.) If he is remembered at all, it is most likely for his D minor Piano Trio, some of the two-piano pieces and above all the lovely Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky for string orchestra.
A double pleasure, then, to encounter his Quartet in A minor for Violin, Viola and Two Cellos on Sunday's Deer Valley Chamber Music Festival concert. First, because of the work itself, with its rich-toned writing for all four instruments, then for the chance to hear the Variations in their original context - i.e., as the central movement of the quartet.
Produced in the full flower of Russian romanticism, the piece as a whole was intended as a memorial to Tchaikovsky, and one I think the latter would have admired. Certainly the liturgically grounded outer movements would not have been far from his heart (even if in the third Arensky borrows a leaf from Beethoven and incorporates the "Slava" anthem, a la the second "Razumovsky" Quartet). And the Variations, based on the "Legend" (often sung in English to the words "When Jesus was a little child"), have long seemed to me worthy of the master. (Can it be accidental that, like the Andante Cantabile from the First Tchaikovsky Quartet, they have also gone on to achieve independent existence?)
Sunday the work's melancholy ardor was captured in an emotionally charged reading in which the vibrato occasionally threatened to get out of hand but whose weight and passion were seldom amiss. Thus, after an affecting statement of the theme by violinist Manuel Ramos, the Variations had soulfulness even in their more animated sections. (Other performers were violist Leslie Blackburn and cellists Terry King and Catherine Lehr.)
One does not normally think of Schubert as a two-piano composer, but in fact his many four-hand pieces are often performed that way, not least the F minor Fantasia, perhaps his greatest creation in that vein.
Dating from the composer's final year - that incredible period that, besides the C major String Quintet, the "Great" Symphony and the "Schwanengesang," also gave us the last three piano sonatas - it also figured on this program, in a performance by pianists John Jensen and Mary Pendleton that I found short on grace and lyricism.
At least I have heard more poetic statements of the elegiac theme that opens the piece - here way too loud, for this room anyway. And although they did convey the increased gravity of the finale's return to F minor, both here and in the rat-tat-tat Scherzo the effect was distinctly metallic (thanks in part to a clanking-necklace obbligato).
After intermission King and Jensen - two-thirds of the Mirecourt Trio - returned with clarinetist Russell Harlow for a performance of Ramiro Cortes' Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, written for them in 1981. Whether in the darkly playful opening movement or the nocturnal repose of the Lento, its melancholic overtones were well to the fore, climaxing in bluesy finale whose energetic piano writing variously recalled Gershwin and Debussy. (In the sharply punctuated central section of the Lento, I should have said the likeness was to Prokofiev.)
No less atmospheric was the piece that closed the program, the Suite for Two Cellos and Piano of Gian Carlo Menotti, composed in 1973 for the 70th birthday of cellist Gregor Piatigorsky.
Again King's resonant strength put one in mind of the latter (his teacher, as it happens), especially contrasted with Lehr's somewhat leaner sound. Abetted by Jensen, however, they communicated in full the music's distinctive blend of lyricism and drama, from the stately tread of the introductory maestoso (here with a funereal cast) to the bold energy of the Finale.