Saturday, July 11, 2009

Chamber Music Northwest musicians uncork a spectacular vintage 1826 concert

(CMNW pre-concert dining at Reed College - photo Jim Leisy)

A lot of great music was written in 1826, and Chamber Music Northwest in its concert on Thursday evening (July 9) reached back to that year to present an outstanding program of works by Beethoven, Schubert, and Mendelssohn. A total of ten performers (not all on stage at the same time) just flat-out wowed the near-capacity audience in Kaul Auditorium with superb artistry that revealed the heights and depths of each piece. It was as if each duo and ensemble had been playing together for years and years, when, in reality, they had only a rehearsal or two to whip each piece into shape.

The concert started with Schubert’s Rondo in B Minor for Violin and Piano (“Rondeau Brillant”), Op 70. In 1826, Schubert was only 29 years old when he wrote this exuberant piece for the 20-year-old Josef Slavík, a Chech virtuoso who was often compared to Paganini. Both artists did not live much longer: Schubert died a couple of years later and Slavík succumbed to a reoccurrence of influenza in 1833 at the age of 27.

Violinist Jennifer Frautschi and pianist Shai Wosner played the “Rondeau Brillant” with free-spirited élan. I loved the demonstrative, grand chords at the beginning of the piece and how it all changed to a light-footed dance. When this stylistic switch occurred again later in the piece, Frautschi and Wosner ratcheted up the tension in the music until it was almost completely knotted. Then they loosened up the music and released it all effortlessly, skipping merrily along as if nothing had ever happened. This was a terrific opener, and listeners embraced the music enthusiastically.

In 1826, Beethoven, at age 56, wrote his String Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135. Since he lived only another year, this work became the last major piece that he finished, and its sunny disposition seems to suggest that he had intended to write many more works.

Combining facile dexterity with a genuine love for Beethoven’s music, violinists Lila Josefowicz and Steve Copes, violist Paul Neubauer, and cellist Fred Sherry reached into every nook and cranny of this masterpiece to deliver its full, emotional weight. The first movement was so conversational in nature, with each player having his or her turn to move the discussion forward. The second movement launched them into an exciting and competitive realm in which the music almost careened about wildly. Josefowicz got an incredible workout, impressively handling notes that quickly jumped to extreme ends of spectrum. Then the third movement arrived and the entire mood completely changed to that of a solemn and earnest prayer. The intensity of this inward-looking music mesmerized the audience that no one seemed to move a muscle. The buoyant, extroverted intensity of the fourth movement brought the piece to a jubilant end, and the audience rewarded the players with forte applause.

Next came five songs for soprano and piano by Mendelssohn, who was all of 17 years old when he wrote the first one in 1826 and only 23 years old when he wrote the last one in 1833. These songs were meant for gatherings in the living room, yet with the voice of Hyunah Yu and the fingers of pianist Wosner, they easily filled Kaul Auditorium yet retained the atmosphere of intimacy. Yu’s sound was buttery and like a bouquet at the same time. Her impeccable German diction was enhanced by gestures and facial expressions that made each word and phrase come alive. It was as if Yu and Wosner created something for each individual in the hall, and they received heartfelt and sustained applause after they finished the final song, “Neue Liebe” (“New Love”).

In 1826 Mendelssohn also wrote his Quintet No. 1 in A Major for two violins, two violas, and cello (Op. 18) and matriculated to Berlin University where he studied law, geography, and aesthetics (with Hegel). Mendelssohn had already composed, the year before, his amazing Octet for Strings (performed in a Chamber Music Northwest concert during the first week) and the magical “Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture.” (At that stage of this reviewer’s life, I was struggling to chew bubble gum and perfect a jump shot.)

For this Chamber Music Northwest performance of Mendelssohn’s First Quintet, violinist Copes was joined by fellow comrade Theodore Arm, violists Neubauer and Cynthia Phelps, and cellist Ronald Thomas. Displaying impeccable musicianship and understanding, this ensemble got past all of the nimble finger-work to make this piece sing. I loved the enchanting elfin-like quality of the “Scherzo” and the brief aggressive outburst in the lower strings that followed. The piece concluded with a terrific “Joie de vivre” that received a standing ovation.

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