This year, Peoples' Symphony Concerts is marking an important anniversary for the Marlboro Music Festival by devoting all three concert series to musicians who have participated in this important and stimulating summer program. Sunday's program at Town Hall took this theme a step further than usual by dividing up the afternoon into two distinctly separate presentations. The St. Lawrence String Quartet, originally billed as the performing group for the program, opened with Joseph Haydn's String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 20, No. 5, and concluded the program with Antonin Dvorak's String Quartet No. 14 in Ab, Op. 105. But interspersed between these two string quartets was a contrasting presentation, as baritone John Moore and pianist Anna Polonsky performed the six songs by Franz Schubert setting verses by Heinrich Heine, that were included by Schubert's publisher in the posthumous collection titled "Schwanengesang", D. 957.
My previous encounters with the St. Lawrence Quartet were all on recordings, so it was interesting to finally hear them perform live. Their approach to the Haydn Quartet was on the large-scale, romantic side, I thought, paying no obeisance to the dictates of the "early music" theorists. The opening movement actually sounded quite advanced harmonically for something attributed to 1772, and throughout the quartet I was struck at what a "modern" composer Haydn was for his time. Surely, late-18th century audiences hearing this music would find it challenging. The ensuing menuet and adagio movements were perhaps a bit less adventures, but the finale, a fugue, came across as played by the St. Lawrence as a very richly-textured experience, sounding at times like a Stokowski arrangement of Bach. I savored every moment!
Mr. Moore, who has sung at the Metropolitan Opera and starred as Figaro last year in the Welsh National Opera's production of The Barber of Seville, proved a very dramatic interpreter of Schubert. He rearranged the order of the Heine songs from their published order in Schwanengesang, but there is nothing sacred about the order, as it was selected by Schubert's publisher, the composer not having indicated that the songs were to form a cycle. As it was, I found Mr. Moore's order – Das Fischermadchen, Am Meer, Die Stadt, Der Doppelganger, Ihr Bild, Der Atlas – was less than ideal in maintaining listener interest. A lively song was followed by four consecutive slow, forboding songs, ending with an intensely dramatic close. If one is to extract those six songs from the published collection, the matter of order is very important. I expect that Moore and pianist Polonsky gave some consideration to how to arrange these, but I would have placed one of the livelier songs in the middle rather than have four consecutive slow numbers.
Setting aside the order, I thought that Moore and Polonsky provided excellent performances, and I wish they had an opportunity to present a larger and more varied selection from Schwanengesang!
Finally, the St. Lawrence returned after intermission for Dvorak, the violinists swapping seats. One hears lots of Dvorak at Peoples' Symphony (I wonder whether PSC's manager, Frank Salomon, has a role in selecting the programs and is a Dvorak fanatic???), and that is all to the good, because Dvorak's chamber music is prime stuff and doesn't get nearly as much play as it deserves. The Op. 105 Quartet, from 1895, is the work of the mature master who had already given us the New World Symphony, and it is constantly absorbing with fresh themes and a sure use of the quartet medium. I thought the performance did great justice to the magnificent work, and I hope PSC doesn't need the excuse of a Marlboro commemoration to bring back the St. Lawrence for a full program in the future.
The Town Hall series will conclude on April 15 with a recital by Jonathan Biss, a great young pianist who never fails to impress. To judge by the attendance on Sunday, PSC has tickets available for these concerts, which are very reasonably priced. One can pay "uptown" prices to hear musicians of the high quality of Jonathan Biss at Lincoln Center or Carnegie, or one can pay budget prices to hear them at the nicely refurbished Town Hall (or, at the charming auditorium at Washington Irving High School for PSC's other series, which will include two Music from Marlboro groups, the Shanghai Quartet with pianist Peter Serkin, and the Tokyo Quartet with pianist Alon Goldstein in its remaining programs). Check out PSC's website for details about one of the greatest bargains remaining for classical music lovers in NYC. (No, I'm not on their payroll, just an enthusiastic subscriber.)