Beethoven and Webern make strange bedfellows, but Andrew List’s Six Bagatelles for String Trio, winner of the Portland Chamber Music Festival’s 2010 Composer’s Competition, combines the two influences in a way that makes significant musical sense.

His work, composed in 2004, was given an exciting and sometimes moving performance by Jesse Mills, violin, Marka Gustavsson, viola, and Ronald Feldman, cello, at Thursday night’s PCMF concert at the Abromson Community Education Center.

Both Beethoven and Webern’s bagatelles are “little nothings” only in the sense that they are jewel-like miniatures.

List has used the form to explore the dynamic, rhythmic and textural possibilities of the string trio in a way that is sometimes as light-hearted as Beethoven and sometimes as ascetic as Webern, but with his own distinctive voice.

The growly rhythmic complexity of the Introduction and Finale are fascinating and reveal the intensity that can be achieved by an instrumental combination that used to grace the lady-like Palm Court of the Plaza during afternoon tea. There is nothing sentimental about even the most introverted and ethereal pieces, such as the arioso.

List also shows that the cello can sing in a high voice, without sounding like a falsetto.

I have sometimes criticized the festival’s judgment in choosing a winner of the competition, but “Six Bagatelles ” is the real thing.

As usual, the contemporary composition was “sandwiched” between two Classical and Romantic compositions, the great Mozart Quartet in A Major for Clarinet and Strings (K. 581) and the Piano Quintet No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 1 of Ernst von Dohnany.

Clarinetist Todd Palmer excelled in a virtually flawless reading of the familiar Mozart masterpiece, which made it seem as new as the day it was written.

Less familiar, but enjoyable in a different way, the Dohnany Quintet, written when he was a teenager, throws caution to the winds, with melodies that would have lasted Brahms (who loved the work) a century, solos for everyone, a five-voice fugue and harmonies as rich as a banana split.

Of course he doesn’t leave anything for the final climax, but who cares.

One would think that the Romantic passion, continual melody and rich textures of a work in four movements would eventually become cloying, but that is not the case. Dohnany always comes up with some new and satisfying tidbit.

The work is reminiscent of the piano sonatas of the young Brahms, which show a similar fecundity of imagination, keeping nothing in reserve. The performance deserved its standing ovation.

 

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at: [email protected]