Talmi’s New Clarinet Quintet and a Perfect Beethoven Tempo at the Montréal Chamber Music Festival

CanadaCanada Dvořák, Beethoven, Talmi: Israeli Chamber Project (Alon Goldstein and Yoav Talmi, pianos; Tibi Cziger, clarinet; Yehonatan and Carmit Zori, violins; Nitai Zori, viola; Michal Korman, cello), Pollack Hall, McGill University, Montréal, 15.6.2017. (LV)

Dvořák Slavonic Dances Op.72 No.2 in E minor and Op.46 No.8 in G minor; Quintet in A major Op.81
Beethoven Clarinet Trio in B Flat Major, Op.11
Yoav Talmi Clarinet Quintet

For their second appearance at the Montréal Chamber Music Festival, the Israeli Chamber Project found the perfect tempo in Beethoven’s Op.11 Clarinet Trio and presented the world premiere of Yoav Talmi’s Clarinet Quintet. Dvořák provided the bookends.

In introductory remarks from the stage, Talmi explained that he had been influenced by his own De Profundis (2011), a 23-minute, four-movement cantata inspired by the history of the Jewish people. Talmi led the world premiere with his Orchestre Symphonique de Québec, 150 miles up the St. Lawrence River, on the final concert of his 14-year run as their artistic director and principal conductor.

The opening fugal Lento was all about wandering, searching, and finally seeking home. The second movement was three minutes of death-defying acrobatics, chains of trills, and intense, Bartókian, dance-like rhythms. The ten-minute Adagio fell under the redemptive shadow of the earlier work. When the clarinet and viola rose in soulful song, the weight of farewell and longing struck an unexpected, riveting note. The rest proceeded in ghostly passages and new harmonies, every measure leading ineluctably to the end.

After deep breaths for all concerned, Tibi Cziger clicked, squeaked, gurgled, and produced a number of sounds in directions only a clarinetist could truly love. The quartet went col legno, the cello descended indecently down to a low C, segueing back to the start then spiraling into a final pulse-pounding rush. The crowd went wild.

Before that, there was Beethoven’s Trio Op.11 for piano, clarinet, and cello –  three instruments the composer loved. He adored the clarinet’s rustic personality (as he showed in the “Pastoral” Symphony) and he loved to hear the cello sing (although he had an interesting take on what the instrument could do). He also loved to be the star at the keyboard – which he was.

In the Israeli Chamber Project’s reading, the first thing one noticed was an incredible balance between the three instruments. No matter the context, the stress, or who was carrying the tune, all three could be heard clearly as part of the narrative. Goldstein managed to sound like the most exuberantly sexy virtuoso, while at the same time being a sensitive chamber musician with a great sense of humor – just the role Beethoven played.

The end of the bouncy first movement was appropriately naughty, after which they laid down a gorgeously ornate slow movement. It was in the third movement – marked Allegretto with nine variations and a concluding Allegro – that the Israeli Chamber Project found that perfect tempo.

The theme itself was a popular ditty by a minor composer of the day, which was sung in the taverns and whistled on the streets. It may well have been an ironic choice, as Beethoven was inclined to do, but the variations that resulted are a string of exquisite ideas in which the composer plays with different moods, configurations, and roles. Done as miraculously as it was by Goldstein, Cziger, and Herman, it both stretched time beyond time – and ended too soon. Moments like Cziger’s startling virtuosity in Variation 3, Herman’s superb crooning in No. 8, or Goldstein’s dreamy segue into the finale were all made possible by the first, perfect tempo: as if it were Beethoven’s own clock that was set ticking.

The concert opened with two of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances played by Talmi and Goldstein at the Steinway with affectionate warmth, letting phrases glow and move slower, rather than too aggressively forging ahead. The other Dvořák on the program was the concluding Piano Quintet Op.81. It received a similarly affectionate performance that submerged the specifically Czech folk-music roots to offer a more generalized style. Balances were amazing throughout, despite the composer’s often thick writing, and there were many magical moments. But thereafter the players seemed to be on individual voyages of discovery, which never really settled down until they sensed the finish line and raced away to the end.

The Festival’s founding director, Denis Brott, introduced the concert with the news that the Montréal Chamber Music Festival, which would be “the envy of any city in the world”, is in serious financial difficulty. He asked that the audience sign a letter of support. I’m signing here.

Laurence Vittes

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