The Folkways That Led to Dvorak and Bartok

Jeremy Denk
The New York Times

By Vivien Schweitzer

Folk traditions heavily influenced 19th-century Central European composers like Dvorak and some of their 20th-century successors, most notably Bartok. This folk heritage was explored at Alice Tully Hall on Tuesday evening in the first of two Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center programs organized by the pianist Jeremy Denk.

The 21st-century cellphone tradition was irritatingly alive during the first half of the program, which began with Zemlinsky’s Humoreske for Wind Quintet (1939), a harmonically conventional rondo based on a jaunty theme. This season the society is centering its theme of “musical inheritance” around Brahms, of whom Zemlinsky was a protégé. The influence of Brahms could also be discerned in Dohnanyi’s lushly romantic and lyrical Sextet in C for Clarinet, Horn, Violin, Viola, Cello, and Piano (1935), given a full-blooded performance here. The Allegro con Sentimento incorporates a series of variations on a folk-inflected melody, and a witty waltz is woven through the Finale, whose spry conclusion evoked chuckles from the audience.

Here and throughout the evening the standard of playing was impressive, with Mr. Denk’s thoughtful music making complemented by the fine performances of his young colleagues, who included the violinist Erin Keefe, the violist Richard O’Neill and the clarinetist Jose Franch-Ballester. In Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet (1953), an arrangement of selections from his “Musica Ricercata” for Piano, he was strongly influenced by Bartok — who meticulously researched and incorporated the folk music of his native Hungary in his scores. Echoes of Bartok abound in Ligeti’s Bagatelles, like in the bristling rhythms of the fourth movement and the brisk dissonances of the Finale. The musicians vividly revealed the work’s intricacies, including the flute melody that unfolds over snappily descending ostinato patterns in the other winds.

Bartok also influenced Kurtag’s early works, although after 1959, the year Kurtag wrote his Quintet for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon and Horn, he adopted a sparser aesthetic. This quintet illustrates that new ideal, with spare and brief movements that are both acerbic and expressive.

The program concluded with a vibrant interpretation of the Piano Quartet in D by Dvorak, another composer inspired by native traditions. Dvorak was initially inspired by the folk music of Moravia and Bohemia and later, when he lived in the United States, by American Indian and African-American idioms. Folk-like melodies permeate the first movement, enhanced by the finely crafted phrasing of Mr. Denk and his colleagues.