For Once, A Less-Than-Stellar Evening at PCMS

United StatesUnited States  Schubert, Kurtág, Dvořák, Brahms, and Beethoven: Dénes Várjon and Izabella Simon (piano, piano duet), Michelle Ross (violin), Brook Speltz (cello), Sarah Shafer (soprano), Rebecca Ringle (mezzo-soprano), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 12.2.2015 (BJ)

Schubert: Adagio in E-flat major, D. 897, for piano trio
Kurtág: Transcriptions from Machaut to J.S. Bach for piano duet (excerpts); Játékok for piano duet (excerpts)
Dvořák: Selections from Moravian Duets: Možnost; Prsten; Velet’, vtáčku; Hofe; A já ti uplynu
Brahms: Four Duets, Op. 61: Die Schwestern; Klosterfräulein; Phänomen; Die Boten der Liebe
Beethoven: Piano Trio in D major, Op. 70 No. 1, “Ghost”


In a season that this time around offers more than 60 concerts, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society habitually sets so high a standard of artistic excellence that to encounter a concert of underwhelming quality comes as a surprise—but this was such a concert.

The program itself was promising enough, beginning as it did with one of the most beautiful pieces ever written, Schubert’s E-flat-major Adagio, also known as “Notturno,” and probably intended originally as the slow movement of the B-flat-major Piano Trio, D. 898. By way of some forgettable pieces of jerky lingua franca modernism by Kurtág, the widely admired (though not by me) doyen among contemporary Hungarian composers, the program then proceeded via vocal duets by Dvořák and Brahms, to conclude with the great D-major work by Beethoven known as the “Ghost” Trio.

Expectations inevitably ran high for the performances to be provided by a group of “Musicians from Marlboro.” In the event, however, the singing turned out to be much better than the playing. The Hungarian pianist Dénes Várjon began well, fashioning some agreeable liquid tones in the quiet opening section of the Schubert, but as soon as dynamics above a mezzo-piano were required, his tone became harsh and frankly tinny. The string playing, meanwhile, seemed curiously lacking in body, with etiolated violin tone and not much in the way of a solid foundation provided by the cello.

At the other end of the evening, the same was true of the same players’ traversal of the Beethoven trio, while, in the piano solo, piano duet, and vocal duet pieces in between, neither Várjon nor his compatriot Izabella Simon managed anything more agreeable in tone at a forte or even a mezzo-forte level. It was hard to believe, though true, that this was the same piano from which Julius Drake, partnering Matthew Polenzani in the tenor’s recital less than a week earlier, drew all manner of beguiling sonorities at every dynamic level.

What was left to admire was some fine duet performances by soprano Sarah Shafer and mezzo-soprano Rebecca Ringle. Though their support from pianist Simon was little help, they sang beautifully, with voices that blended well enough, and the grouping of the two sets of duets before and after intermission was instructive. It was revealing to hear how the Brahms pieces benefitted from a variety of rhythmic inventions and vocal pauses that saved the music from ever sitting down, in contrast with the relatively tedious rhythmic squareness of the ones by his protégé Dvořák.

Bernard Jacobson

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