Saturday, May 2, 2009

McDuffie-Dutton-Kirshbaum Trio play Chamber Music Northwest

Thursday night, Chamber Music Northwest featured the McDuffie-Dutton-Kirshbaum Trio in the last CMNW concert before the summer festival. Kaul Auditorium at Reed College was packed despite competition from the Blazers playoff game versus Houston, a fact which prompted wry jokes from the stage throughout the evening.

In a program featuring duos and trios by Beethoven, Schubert and Ravel, violinist Robert McDuffie, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist Ralph Kirshbaum demonstrated individual virtuosity and near-perfect synchronicity as an ensemble. The only performer to play in all four of the evening's offerings, Kirshbaum especially impressed; he is without a doubt one of the most gifted cellists I have ever heard.

The unfinished Triosatz in B-Flat Major (D. 471) by Schubert opened the performance. The sighing, murmuring cello, the viola see-sawing a soft pedal point staccato and the singing of the violin seemed to ebb and flow organically, like a serenade to the glorious evening sunshine fading behind the green outside. It was particularly delightful--Schubert at his high-classical best. It felt almost cruel when the music suddenly softened and died without warning.

Up next was the Ravel Sonata for Violin and Cello (1920-22.) To call Ravel’s weltering sonic dreamscape ‘difficult’ would be a gross understatement. Musicologist Bob Kingston related an anecdote in which Helene Jourdan-Morhange, the violinist who premiered the work, spoke about the frustrations of practicing it in front of the composer. “It must be fun to write such difficult stuff,” she said to Ravel, “but no one’s going to play it but virtuosi.” “Good,” he replied, “at least I won’t be assassinated by amateurs.”

Playing this piece at the level it demands required the utmost concentration and artistry from even these top-caliber performers. McDuffie and Kirshbaum had everything they could do simply fulfilling the technical requirements of this work, and yet they also managed a deft and nuanced interpretation. Harmonically speaking the piece wove in and out of atonality and polytonality; the pair’s ability to seamlessly weave together a murderous array of syncopated melodic motives, navigate a menacing forest of thorny pizzicato chords that flashed back and forth to con arco with blinding speed and still play with such precision was exciting. Hearing two such performers display this sheer unanimity of purpose was nothing short of remarkable. The audience seemed overwhelmed and almost aghast—whether at the audacity of the composition, the brilliance of the performance or both was not quite discernible.

The all-Beethoven second half opened with the Duo in E-Flat Major “Eyeglass” (WoO 32.) Despite a clever, recurring sight gag focusing on eyeglasses, this piece for viola and cello didn’t always display the degree of polish that was present in the others. Some misalignment between players, bobbled notes and lackluster phrasing occasionally plagued this work.

The grand finale was the Trio in G Major (Op. 9, No. 1). Both of the Beethoven works preceded the turn of the 19th century, and so highlighted the grand, noble classicism of his earlier oeuvre. Presenting a full-throated wall of sound that seemed almost impossible coming from only three instruments, they at turns played in a glorious cantabile even when the work demanded rapid, sparkling brilliance. The dynamics swelled and receded resplendently, and for all its technical demands it managed to come off sounding light and easy. The Presto finale was taken at a truly furious tempo, and the trio’s phrasing included an electric, moody martellato that paid homage to the brilliance of the piece.

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