Commissioned by the Cantata Singers and Peggy Pearson’s Winsor Music, Hartke’s Precepts is actually two related but separate works based on Biblical texts, to which, the composer says, he may continue to add. Non negabis mercedem indignis (Deuteronomy 24:14-15: “Do not keep back the wages of the poor and needy”) begins with waves of women’s voices, a quietly wailing oboe d’amore, with Pearson at her most darkly inward, and muttering viola and cellos — music that will return later for a violin-viola-cello trio. The men in the chorus then take over (“Pay him his wages”). At the climax, the full chorus drowned Pearson out — I’m not sure this was Hartke’s intent.
STEPHEN HARTKE: The music of his Precepts didn’t quite rise to the satiric ferocity of the text.
The second Precept is drawn from the New English Bible version of Proverbs and Lamentations. Wisdom (the chorus) chastises the people of the city for their foolishness and threatens to laugh at their doom “and deride you when terror comes upon you like a hurricane.” “Stupid men hate knowledge. . . . An ignorant ruler brings harm to his people. . . . And the stupid are ruined by their complacency.” I suspect this won’t be performed at the White House anytime in the next two years. Pearson, back on the traditional oboe, played with high-pitch agitation. The opening outcry of Wisdom comes like a voice from within a whirlwind; “Your doom descends in a whirlwind,” the chorus whispers later.
Congratulations to Hoose and the Cantata Singers for doing Precepts twice. “I liked it better the second time,” I heard someone say. Although I admired Hartke’s eloquent restraint, I also wished — even the second time — that this affecting music could have risen to more of the satiric ferocity of the text. But maybe sorrow rather than anger is what we can muster right now.
Next season the Cantata Singers will focus on the music of Kurt Weill, including in their programs some real rarities. Then we’ll have plenty of satiric ferocity and memorable melody.
Even if he tried, Leon Fleisher probably couldn’t play a note without making it part of a meaningful phrase. This great pianist has been playing with both hands for more than a decade, after a 30-year battle against “focal dystonia,” an ailment that affected the use of his right hand. Two weeks ago, the Bank of America Celebrity Series brought him to Boston to play Brahms’s rapturous F-minor Piano Quintet with the Emerson String Quartet — a piece he also plays on the new Emerson Quartet two-CD Brahms set. This was a powerful, heroic performance on the largest scale, a musical juggernaut for which Fleisher provided the pulsing, life-affirming rhythmic underpinning. The full-tilt forcefulness of the string playing did tend to cover the piano and override Brahms’s moments of sweetness and sunlit clarity — the finest performances are forceful and sweet, conveying a more kaleidoscopic sense of shifting balances among the players.
The Emersons began with Brahms’s C-minor String Quartet and Bartók’s single-movement Quartet No. 3, both rather unyielding works. I cherished Bartók’s passages of eerie “night music,” which, however unsettling, provided a relief from the continuous intensity.
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