Guest Reviewer, David M. Rice

Thursday, July 7, Seiji Ozawa Hall: The first of a three-part series curated by Emanuel Ax, with a “Pathways from Prague” theme, combining his career-long devotion to Antonín Dvořák’s compositions with a newly discovered affection for the music of Leoš Janáček. In the first half, Ax partnered Paul Appleby’s stirring rendition of Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared. As much a drama as a song-cycle, it is the first-person narrative of Janík,a young Czech farmer who becomes infatuated, obsessed, and ultimately seduced by Zefka, a dark-skinned Roma woman. Contralto Emily Marvosh made a captivating Zefka, interacting with Appleby to depict the two characters’ initial encounter and ensuing sexual liaison, as an offstage Greek chorus (sopranos Sarah Brailey & Sonja Tengblad and mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski) offered sweetly harmonized commentary and advanced the narrative. Appleby convincingly expressed Janík’s feelings of guilt and shame at the forbidden relationship, stating that he would sooner cut off his little finger than have Gypsy in-laws. Yet, declaring that no one can escape his fate, he ultimately bids farewell forever to his family, home and village to leave with Zefka, who has borne his child. Ax brilliantly colored the poetic text’s many depictions of nature – birds, fireflies, trees, the darkness of night and the light of dawn – as well as illustrating Janík’s touching, one-sided conversations with his team of oxen and adding emphasis to his dramatic emotional outbursts. In a mood-changing interlude, alternately dance-like and thunderous, Ax set the stage for Janík’s acceptance of the inevitability of his leaving with Zefka. As he departs with her at the cycle’s end, he repeats that that no one can escape his fate. English translations of the Czech text were displayed on video screens.

The second half was the Dover Quartet’s reading of Dvořák’s String Quartet No.13 in G (Opus 106), composed soon after his return to Prague from his three-year sojourn in America. This work has little of the nationalistic flavor that colors its famous predecessor, the Twelfth (‘American’) Quartet, and many of his other compositions, placing it closer to contemporaneously prevailing European compositional styles. The Dover musicians (Joel Link & Bryan Lee, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, and Camden Shaw) excelled in shaping and coloring Dvořák’s beautiful melodies, deftly managing changes of mood and mode. All four displayed impressive technique.

Thursday, July 14, Seiji Ozawa Hall: The second recital featured part-songs and piano music by Janáček and Dvořák, with some American music inspired by Dvořák thrown in for good measure. The eight singers of the low-voice ensemble Cantus led off with six Janáček songs, with themes ranging from religion (‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’ and ‘Ave Maria’ – Lord Byron’s poem, not the Catholic prayer) to love and parting, war and peace. The four tenors, two baritones and two basses superbly negotiated Janáček’s intricate counterpoint and harmonies. Next, Mackenzie Melemed offered a sensitive reading of Janáček’s Piano Sonata, 1.X. 1905, (From the Street…), written as a tribute to a young man slain as he demonstrated in the composer’s hometown of Brno, advocating creation of a Czech-speaking university there. Before it was ever performed, Janáček burned the third movement, and later threw the first two movements into the Vltava, but fortunately a copy had been preserved by a student of the composer. The opening movement, ‘Foreboding’, is dominated by falling figures and punctuated by potent outbursts, but it turns more pensive at the end, setting the mood for ‘Death’, suggestive of a funeral march, replete with tolling bells, that grows in harmonic complexity and dramatic intensity until the cortege resumes its measured pace and finally fades away. Emanuel Ax joined Melemed for a rousing rendition of five Dvořák Slavonic Dances, three from Opus 46 (1, 7 & 8), and two from Opus 72 (2 & 7). These marvelous works are best-known in their orchestral settings, but the four-hands versions exude a joyful energy that beckons listeners to the dance floor. Melemed voiced gorgeous melodic lines and sparkling ornaments as Ax, seated to his left, provided a strong rhythmic and harmonic bass line, venturing some melodies as well.

In the second half, Cantus offered eight Dvořák songs, the first five a cappella, the others with Ax and Melemed. ‘The Song of a Czech’ became a sort of anthem in the struggle for Czech nationhood, and the concluding number is based on the Largo from the ‘New World’ Symphony. The Largo had been inspired by African-American music, and Dvořák in turn inspired Harry T. Burleigh, an African-American composer whose settings of two negro spirituals, ‘Deep River’ and ‘Ezekiel Saw de Wheel’ were given touching performances by Cantus. The concert came to a delightful end with three selections from Dvořák’s Opus 43 Bouquet of Slavonic Folk Songs, combining expressions of human emotions with references to nature. In the first two, ‘Grief’ and ‘Strange Water’, the pianists for the most part focused on supporting the vocalists’ melodic lines with embellishments, harmony and counterpoint, but in the final song, ‘The Girl in the Grove’, Ax and Melemed led off with the melody and continued as full partners in telling the song’s sad tale.

Regrettably, my Tanglewood stay will end before the final recital, Koussevitzky Shed on August 12, Ax joined by Pamela Frank, Leonidas Kavakos, Antoine Tamestit, and Yo-Yo Ma.

Boston Symphony Orchestra “Opening Night at Tanglewood” – Andris Nelsons conducts Bernstein’s Opening Prayer & Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – Yuja Wang plays Liszt.

Carnegie Hall – Emanuel Ax plays Late Chopin.

Beethoven for Three: Symphonies arranged for piano trio – No.2/Ferdinand Ries & No.5/Colin Matthews – Emanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos & Yo-Yo Ma on Sony Classical.