The Library of Congress’s tribute to Fritz Kreisler on Friday night had an unintended consequence. The Cygnus Ensemble and friends noted the 50th anniversary of the eminent violinist’s death with a performance of some of his compositions. But while it was a heartfelt nod toward the impact of Kreisler as a performer, it also showed him to be little more than a dilettante composer.
Harold Meltzer’s intriguing sextet “Brion,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2009, provided the damning comparison. Based on Meltzer’s visit to Carlo Scarpa’s postmodern mausoleum and garden for the Brion-Vega family, near Venice, the work is a haunting evocation of the site’s enveloping silence and architectural gestures to the meeting with infinity it commemorates. The almost toneless twittering of breathy piccolo, in imitation of the birds that pierce the quiet, punctuates the work structurally. Folksy or bluesy guitar and mandolin formed transitions between sections, and quasi-minimalist repetitions set in motion jagged, dissonant motifs, with the oboe getting the only soaring melody, set clarion-high. The Cygnus Ensemble, which made the first recording of the work (for Naxos), performed this rewarding music expertly, with James Baker’s clear conducting as rhythmic guide.
No one likes to be labeled, composers least of all. In a post-concert conversation, Meltzer rejected the idea that his music was “post-minimalist,” listing Webern, Berio, Ligeti and Adams as among his influences. The piece commissioned from him by the library for the anniversary, “Kreisleriana,” revealed other appealing ideas, especially the Doppler-like effect of buzzing tremolos, but it showed little influence of Kreisler’s compositional style. (This is not to be confused with Schumann’s “Kreisleriana,” a set of character pieces based on the E.T.A. Hoffmann character Johannes Kreisler, played by pianist Jonathan Biss on Saturday night.)
Kreisler was represented by a few of his encore pieces, often passed off by him as morsels by other composers he had “discovered,” which takes one back to a time when few people had any idea what early baroque music sounded like. They were rendered with warm, dazzling technique by Miranda Cuckson, performing on Kreisler’s Guarneri del Gesu violin, and by Cygnus’s violinist, Calvin Wiersma, somewhat less dazzling. Kreisler’s tiresome string quartet in A minor, led by Cuckson on first violin, sounded much the same, as if assembled and extended from a few of those concert miniatures.
Downey is a freelance writer.