Montage Gives New Life To Zemlinsky's Cello Sonata

Friday, October 20, 2006

If one piece of music could bring post-romantic composer Alexander Zemlinsky out of obscurity, it would be his Cello Sonata, which recently resurfaced and received its North American premiere on Wednesday at the Library of Congress. Cellist Marc Moskovitz, a self-described Zemlinsky buff, and pianist Debra Ayers, both part of Boston-based Montage Music Society, gave the piece an impassioned performance.

Ayers was agile and confident, her part often more interesting and intricate than the cello's. Moskovitz reveled in the glorious sound of the library's precious Stradivarius. There wasn't any real virtuosic material in the sonata -- nothing that would make you say "wow." But the beautiful melodies, highly romantic style and solidness of the composition made me believe that it will immediately become part of the core cello repertoire.

The remainder of the program centered on texts by German poet Richard Dehmel. A set of five songs by Zemlinsky foreshadowed jazz, using chords reminiscent of Claude Debussy. While Zemlinsky's accompaniment was quite simple and straightforward, the mood of each of the songs by his contemporary Arnold Schoenberg was adroitly set by the piano. Soprano Janna Baty conveyed Dehmel's pathos well with her earthy, dusky timbre, though her big sound and overly wide vibrato would have been more appropriate for a much larger concert space.

Though there is no vocal part, Schoenberg's best-known work, "Verklarte Nacht (Transfigured Night)," is also based on a poem by Dehmel. The original string sextet version can be breathtakingly ethereal, but Montage's choice of an arrangement for piano trio, along with unsteady intonation by violinist Sarita Uranovsky, made for an experience that was far from magical.

-- Gail Wein

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