ARC Ensemble Finds Another Forgotten Treasure Trove In Robert Müller-Hartmann

Erika Raum & Marie Bérard, violins, Kevin Ahfat, piano, Steven Dann, viola, Thomas Wiebe, cello (Photo: Suane Hupa)

Robert Müller-Hartmann, chamber works; ARC Ensemble, Sunday Nov. 13 at Mazzoleni Concert Hall.

Unplayed works by unknown composers: this is the stock in trade of the ARC (Artists of the Royal Conservatory) Ensemble, which drew our attention on Sunday to the chamber music of Robert Müller-Hartmann, a Jewish composer, teacher and critic who left Germany for England in the 1930s.

ARC Ensemble artistic director Simon Wynberg billed these performances as the first in more than 80 years. Judging by what we heard in Mazzoleni Hall, the wait will not be so long for another revival.

Like most subjects of ARC reappraisal, Müller-Hartmann was exiled for political reasons. A practical man, he resigned from the University of Hamburg in 1933 before receiving the inevitable letter of dismissal.

Despite a warm welcome in England from Ralph Vaughan Williams and others, he was not able to reestablish himself in an environment disrupted by war. Internment on the Isle of Man did not help.

It might be argued that Müller-Hartmann would have found himself alienated from the mainstream in any case. Firmly rooted in the Romantic tradition, he partook of none the isms — neoclassicism, impressionism, expressionism — that were viewed as a prerequisite to serious consideration in the early-to-mid-20th century.

His music nevertheless manages an apt mix of sun, shadow and storm. The 22-minute Violin Sonata Op. 5 opened with an easygoing warmth reminiscent of Fritz Kreisler before turning volatile. A simple four-note motive received expert development in the Brahmsian slow movement. Violinist Erika Raum conveyed differing shades of tone and emotion, while Kevin Ahfat responded to the extrovert elements of the piano part. A touch of shrillness in the Steinway could probably be attributed to its well-loved condition.

Ahfat was convincing in a set of solo pieces — Three Intermezzi and Scherzo Op. 22 — that were Brahmsian even in name. Rubato was ample and appropriate. The Sonata for Two Violins Op. 32, featuring Raum and Marie Bérard, offered much expert interplay. Works for two violins tend to sound top-heavy. This followed Two Pieces for Cello and Piano (no opus number) played from memory with an arrestingly warm and speaking tone by Thomas Wiebe.

Violist Steven Dann joined the above-named string players in an engaging performance of the Quartet No. 2 Op. 38. Again, the smiles soon yielded to melancholy. The conclusion of the Allegro molto finale was surprisingly understated.

These works will form the basis of another instalment in the ARC Ensemble’s acclaimed Music in Exile series on the Chandos label. That recording will be made next month in Koerner Hall. Sunday’s concert, warmly received, was recorded for broadcast by CBC Radio 2. The handsome printed program included a thorough biography of Müller-Hartmann by Wynberg.

The ARC Ensemble does not do things by halves.

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