Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society presented its closing program for 2013 at Overture Center's Playhouse on Saturday evening, its performance a fine example of the kind of music-making that the organization has been bringing to Madison for 22 seasons.
The opening works were, as is so often the case, considerable novelties. Just being discovered is Dick Kattenburg, an Amsterdam jazz player and composer whose life was cruelly snuffed out at age 25 at Auschwitz. He is represented by a quartet for flute, violin, cello and piano. A short work in three movements, it is fluent but strenuously eclectic, with strong evocations of cabaret and movie music. It is fun to listen to, and seemingly lots of fun for the players, but it leaves no lasting impression. Pleasant fizz, but fizz nonetheless.
In recent years, many musicians have been trying to champion the "serious" works of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), who enjoyed a prodigy's career in Vienna before the Nazi era, became rich and famous composing acclaimed scores for Hollywood movies, and tried to renew his "serious" standing thereafter. His skill and talent were never in doubt, but his striving after large-scale forms suggested he wanted to be Mahler's successor, if without the latter's scope of genius.
The pros and cons of Korngold's legacy are illustrated in his contribution to this program, a work with a curious history. It was composed for Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961), brother of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. An accomplished pianist, Paul suffered the loss of his right arm during World War I, but, despite this blow, he doggedly pursued a career as a concert pianist thereafter, enjoying wide success. As one dimension of that career, thanks to family wealth, Wittgenstein commissioned new compositions for piano left -hand, mostly on concerted forms. Composers thus involved included Richard Strauss, Sergei Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten, but the best-known product was surely Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.
The work in this case is Korgold's Suite for Two Violins, Cello and Piano Left Hand (Op. 23), composed in 1930. The composer could not quite make up his mind if the pianist should be a concerto soloist or an ensemble partner, so he alternates between each role. There are five movements, including a bloated fugue, a maundering waltz, a central scherzo that just won't end, and a final theme with variations in which the theme totally disappears. The one gem of the piece is the only short movement, a "lied" that contains genuine lyric intensity. It all seems to be trying too hard to make too much out of too little.
Nevertheless, the San Francisco Trio, augmented by local violinist Naha Greenholz, joins Jeffrey Syke's powerful left hand in a totally devoted performance. Whatever the reactions, of course, the point is that the Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society gives us an opportunity to encounter these rarities and to judge them for ourselves.
The program moved to the true masterpiece level in the second half with Beethoven's Trio in B-flat for Piano and Strings (Op. 97), known as the "Archduke." This is the grandest of Beethoven's compositions in this form and is always a delight to hear. The San Francisco Piano Trio (Sykes with Axel Strauss and Jean-Michel Fonteneau) are long-established performing partners, and they know this work thoroughly. Their performance was strong-limbed and communicative, an example of the level of excellence we have come to expect from Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society.