By Ted AYALA
If Le Salon de Musiques ever decided to adopt a mascot, German composer Xaver Scharwenka would likely be it.
There has been no other musical organization in Southern California – or indeed in the United States – that has more ardently championed the music of this now mostly forgotten composer. Le Salon performed music by Xaver and his brother Philipp last season. This year, they played Xaver’s music not once, but twice. Their program last Sunday included United States premieres of his music.
Why Scharwenka, who once commanded worldwide fame as both piano virtuoso and composer, fell through the cracks of musical history is hard to say. But what Le Salon’s persuasive performances makes clear is that the fault for this unkind fate lies with his fickle audience, not with his music.
His Opus 1, the “Piano Trio No. 1,” composed when the composer was 18, is tightly organized, classical in outlook, and harkens back to the crystalline textures of Mendelssohn, Hummel and Chopin. But Scharwenka is by no means derivative. The second movement – a kooky, dotted march – is as much homage to Alkan and the march-like second movements of Beethoven’s “Piano Sonata No. 28″ and Schumann’s “Fantasie” as it is a highly original piece of music that at times forecasts Mahler. It also displays a swaggering confidence in itself, bristling with tensile, feline energy in its scherzo and finale that just about pounces on the listener.
The scope of his “Serenade for Violin and Piano” from 1895, on the other hand, is more modest, but beautiful and impassioned nonetheless. The secure reputation of Beethoven’s music, conversely, seems from the vantage point of today to be a foregone conclusion. Yet during his life, that was not necessarily the case. His symphonies were criticized by many, from Goethe and Carl Maria von Weber on down. His late string quartets languished for over half a century in relative obscurity, dismissed by its detractors as “the old man’s toys.”
Beethoven’s own youthful piano trio and Opus 1 – which drew open the curtain on the Le Salon program – was no different. Its place in the repertoire may seem firm today, but its mood swings and complexity caused it to be criticized by his friends and colleagues when it was first performed.
It is easy, as the opening lecture reminded the audience, to forget how disquieting this music was to its first audiences. The trio of François Chouchan (piano), Searmi Park (violin), and Antonio Lysy (cello) was keenly aware of the score’s jarring syncopation and changes in atmosphere. This was not the “white marble establishment Beethoven” that the composer has become since his death, but the tousle-haired rebel that he once was in life.
Fame and respect were also hard-fought for by English composer Frank Bridge. Not that you would guess with the four miniatures – three for cello and piano, the fourth for piano trio – that rounded off Sunday’s program.
Bridge is best remembered today as Benjamin Britten’s mentor and the inspiration for that composer’s string variations that launched his career, though he was a highly original composer in his own right. Few in the audience would have guessed that the same composer who wrote these musical sweets would also late in life compose some of the most saturnine works this side of late Liszt. Cryptic, spare in textures, they were Bridge’s answer to the challenge put forward by the Second Viennese School and the chaotic aftermath of World War I.
But there was none of that in these earlier works. Instead, there was an arresting melodic fluency and charismatic geniality. And if these confections should inspire some listeners to explore more of the work of this still under-appreciated composer – hopefully with Le Salon as their guide – then all the better.