Three Concerts Show Chamber Music of All Shapes and Sizes

United StatesUnited States  Chopin, Schumann, Mozart, and Schumann/Debussy: Zoltán Fejérvári and Kuok-Wai Lio (pianos); Curtis Institute of Music, Field Concert Hall, Philadelphia, 17.11.2015 (BJ)

Chopin: Mazurkas, Op. 24;
Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49
Schumann: Nachtstücke, Op. 23
Mozart: Sonata in D major, K. 448, for two pianos
Schumann: Six Etudes in Canonic Form (arr. Debussy)

 Haydn, Schumann, and Beethoven: Elias String Quartet; Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 18.11.2015 (BJ)
Haydn: String Quartet in C major, Op. 54 No.2, Hob. III:57
Schumann: String Quartet in F major, Op. 41 No. 2
Beethoven: String Quartet in C major, Op. 59 No. 3, “Razumovsky”

Ives: Stefan Jackiw (violin), Jeremy Denk (piano),
Danny O’Neill and Tyler Hoover (tenors), Greg Feldman and Randall Scarlata (baritones); Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 19.11.2015 (BJ)


Ives:  Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-4; Hymns and Songs, (arr. Wilbur Pauley): Beulah Land; I Need Thee Every Hour; Autumn; Shining Shore; Tramp, Tramp, Tramp; The Old Oaken Bucket; Work Song


According to one view of the matter, the term “chamber music” denotes music written for three or more (but probably not more than, say, a dozen) instruments, pieces for two performers being designated as “instrumental” and the category of music for one being called simply “solo.” Happily for the public, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society takes a more flexible view of its name: solo recitals figure copiously in its programs, as do recitals for such familiar forces as violin and piano, and the first and third of the programs now under review offered two disparate kinds of duo, with the addition in the latter case of some hymns and songs performed a cappella by four voices.

A more talented and persuasive piano duo than Zoltán Fejérvári and Kuok-Wai Lio would be hard to imagine. They provided in full measure the characteristic attraction of the two-piano medium: impeccably taut ensemble combined with illuminating personal differences in the nuances drawn from phrases that the two played in turn.

The first half of the program gave each man the chance to display his own individual gifts. Lio, who had impressed me enormously with his performance of Schubert’s great G-major Sonata last season, proved to be no less talented a Chopinist. His interpretative focus was again strongly inward-looking, but with a welcome absence of the sort of miniaturization that in some hands robs the composer of his strength. The relatively unfamiliar Schumann pieces are more mercurial in expression, and Fejérvári too was equal to their challenge both technically and emotionally.

Then came what is probably the greatest work ever written for two pianos, the Mozart D-major Sonata. The performance was everything I had hoped for, and interestingly, once Lio had another musician on the platform with him, he seemed to become almost a different person—more straightforwardly outgoing, though by no means less compelling in his artistry. The sonata is full of melodies exceptionally attractive even for Mozart, most notably the second subject of the first movement, with its simple beginning and full-heartedly reshaped restatement, and the principal theme of the Andante. Each of these was beautifully presented by the players, as were the high-spirited melodic and rhythmic exchanges of the finale. Schumann again—once more with a set of solo pieces that is not often programmed, and this time in a modest but effective two-piano arrangement by Debussy—brought the evening to a conclusion that was at once subtle and satisfying.

The medium of the next evening’s concert was the bedrock chamber-musical one of the string quartet. Up until intermission, and a little way beyond, the Elias String Quartet, now in their 17th year together, showed themselves to be yet another of the highly talented quartets now proliferating around the world. Their Haydn was witty, sufficiently rich in emotion, and (except for the omission of some repeats) thoroughly stylish. Their performance of the Schumann that followed was no less impressive, making the strongest possible case for a composer too often disregarded in accounts of the chamber-music repertoire.

Nor was the performance of Beethoven’s Opus 59 No. 3 without considerable attractions. Most impressive of all was the very beginning, the sustained slow introduction played with an almost aggressive absence of vibrato, and thrillingly dramatic as a result. The main body of the movement, too, and the nostalgically graceful minuet, worthily demonstrated the technical and expressive powers of violinists Sara Bitlloch and Donald Grant, violist Martin Saving, and cellist Marie Bitlloch.

However, the obsessively nagging cello pizzicatos that underpin the texture of the Andante could usefully have been more prominent (this must have been the result of interpretative choice rather than of any technical weakness, for Marie Bitlloch deployed plenty of forceful tone elsewhere in this and the other works). The real turn-off for me, however, was the reading of the famous fugal movement that ends the work.

Far too often these days it is treated as a sort of race, and well as the Eliases handled it at the vertiginous pace they set, the result was a breathless reductio ad absurdum, completely lacking in the poise that alone can make sense of the music’s dash. It can be instructive, if you are in doubt about the appropriateness of the tempo chosen for a given movement, to imagine what the music would sound like if it were taken at the next step faster or slower. Beethoven’s marking here is a not-at-all extreme Allegro molto. And I’m afraid that, given the Elias’s tempo as the reference point, the idea of ramping the speed up to Presto was simply unimaginable. These are far too good musicians to yield in such a way to the meretricious temptations of virtuosity-plus.

There were abundant explosions into Presto-land in the following evening’s performance of all four of Charles Ives’s violin sonatas, but in Ives, outrageous tempos go with the territory. I have long been an admirer of both Stefan Jackiw and Jeremy Denk, but was not aware that they have been playing as a duo for years, and the encounter with two of the outstanding young instrumentalists of our time at the peak of their joint powers was utterly inspiring.

Many years ago, in what was then called the Carnegie (now the Weill) Recital Hall, I heard all four sonatas played by a violinist of high technical skill, whose name I have forgotten—mercifully, since it was a depressing experience: the man stood almost completely turned toward the back of the stage throughout the evening, and along with the rest of the audience, I felt as if I were intruding on his private space by being in the hall. The sheer communicativeness of Denk (who also prefaced the music with informative spoken introductions) and of Jackiw stood at the welcome diametric opposite to such aloof self-seclusion.

Fully as imaginative and musically rewarding a set of works as the composer’s four numbered symphonies, the sonatas are a characteristic mélange of original material with a wealth of largely vernacular pre-existing hymns, songs, and dance tunes. It was an excellent and highly instructive idea to interleave the four sonatas with seven of those sources of Ives’s inspiration, sung with skill and admirable simplicity.

The juxtapositions threw fascinating light on Ives’s deceptively chaotic-sounding but actually shrewd transmogrifications. They also raised in my mind the question how a composer of such unbridled freedom and originality could also be a man devoted to religious and other verbal texts of so conventional a nature. There is perhaps something quintessentially American about such a combination.

Bernard Jacobson

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