United States Haydn, Schubert, and Dvořák: Jonathan Biss and Richard Goode (piano), Mark Steinberg (violin), Peter Wiley (cello), Sarah Shafer (soprano), Anthony McGill (clarinet), Brentano Quartet, Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 24.3.2016. (BJ)
Haydn: Piano Trio in E flat major, Hob. XV:29
Schubert: Fantasy in F minor, D.940; Der Hirt auf dem Felsen, D. 965
Dvořák: Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81
How does one review a love-fest? Yes, this was a concert, and a concert with a very strong program performed by a highly distinguished line-up of musicians. But its chief raison d’être was to salute the man who founded the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society 30 years ago.
Founding artistic director Anthony Checchia, associated also with the Marlboro Music Festival for many years, was present, as affable and dignified as ever, to receive the clearly devoted homage of the audience for whom he changed the face of Philadelphia when in 1986 he inaugurated what is surely the preeminent chamber music series in America. To witness this celebration had a very special personal significance for me. Occasional one-off presentations aside, Phladelphia was pretty well a chamber music desert in the mid-1980s. Then Riccardo Muti hired me, among other purposes, to institute the Philadelphia Orchestra’s chamber music series: his predecessor as music director of the orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, had discouraged such activities on the part of orchestra members, but Muti considered them essential to the ensemble’s musical culture, and I was particularly proud that by its sixth season the series, starting in 1985, had featured no fewer than 80 orchestra members. But it was unquestionably Tony Checchia’s series—which began with a modest handful of concerts just a year later and now presents more than 60 concerts a season with the world’s greatest chamber musicians under the artistic leadership of his successor Miles Cohen, the executive direction of Philip Maneval, and the board chairmanship of Jerry Rubenstein—that transformed Philadelphia into what may well claimed to be the country’s leading center for great chamber music.
The presence in the audience of Tony Checchia’s wife may have been intimidating for Sarah Shafer, since Benita Valente has been for years one of the most admired exponents of Schubert’s Der Hirt auf dem Felsen, but Ms. Shafer sang it beautifully, partnered with immaculate artistry by clarinetist Anthony McGill and pianist Richard Goode. The latter also took the second part to Jonathan Biss’s first in one of the composer’s most compelling piano-duet masterpieces, the poignant F-minor Fantasy, which the two played with uncompromising fidelity to its romantic intensity and yet never lost its classical poise.
Biss, indeed, was in some measure the musical hero of the evening. I have had my reservations about this young American pianist in the past, but his playing in Haydn, Schubert, and Dvořák alike revealed a musician who is perhaps only now coming into his own as an interpreter with impressive gifts of poetry as well as firmly-based technical skills. Mark Steinberg, the first violinist of the Brentano Quartet, jumped in at five days’ notice for the injured Pamela Frank for the Haydn trio that opened the program, and returned to lead a passionate account of the Dvořák quintet that closed it. This latter work was perhaps weakened by a somewhat pallid exposition of the gorgeous cello theme that sets it on its course. But for the rest the musicians all seemed to be having a ball, and so did the rest of us.