High-voltage Tchaikovsky spotlights Chicago Chamber Musicians opener

Mon Sep 14, 2009 at 2:59 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The season-opening program of the Chicago Chamber Musicians served up the technical gleam and sterling musicianship that have characterized their performances for nearly a quarter-century.

 Yet, for one absent from CCM events for several seasons, one of the most striking aspects of Sunday night’s concert at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston was how smoothly the ensemble has managed to bridge the generations—with founding members fluidly melding with the group’s younger musicians.

 Foremost among the latter on Sunday was Meng-Chieh Liu. A guest several times with CCM, the Taiwanese pianist was making his debut as the ensemble’s newest member, and showed himself an extraordinarily gifted artist. Liu provided stylish, bravura pianism in all three works with playing as assured and individual as his use of a Kindle for reading his score. (But how does he ensure the automatic scrolling is in tempo?)

 Tchaikovsky wrote his sole Piano Trio in memory of his mentor, pianist and teacher Nikolai Rubinstein. The composer’s relationship with the prickly Rubinstein wasn’t always smooth—the pianist famously castigated Tchaikovsky over the perceived faults of his First Piano Concerto—-yet in his trio, Tchaikovsky created an epic,  moving homage to his late colleague. The valedictory work was apt for a program dedicated to the memory of WFMT’s Norman Pellegrini, an early and committed CCM advocate.

 Chicago Chamber Musicians’ younger members took the stage for Tchaikovsky’s trio,  and violinist Jasmine Lin, cellist Clancy Newman and Liu proved dynamic and eloquent advocates for this long and challenging score. Played absolutely complete—-even the oft-jettisoned fugal variation of the second movement retained—-the musicians brought a galvanic energy and full-metal intensity without neglecting the music’s somber expression, as in the atmospheric opening pages. 

Jasmine Lin
Jasmine Lin

Liu’s faultless, discreetly balanced pianism was a fine foundation for the burnished warmth of Newman’s cello and Lin’s emotional volatility.  The second and final movement is one of Tchaikovsky’s most inspired feats with twelve wide-ranging variations deployed among the three instrumentalists, given vivid and sensitive advocacy from the rhapsodic Russian gloom to the delicate piano music-box. The final section was edge-of-the-seat thrilling—literally with Lin’s intensely physical playing knocking her score off the stand at the worst possible moment (she managed to  quickly retrieve it, hardly missing a beat).  Exciting as the unbridled bravura was, the elegiac aspect was surely etched, with the return of the solemn opening theme and the long quiet, fading away of the piano evocatively rendered.

 Beethoven was not above dishing off works with an eye toward patron pleasing or public taste, the latter most notably in the cacophonous Wellington’s Victory.

 Beethoven’s early Trio in B flat major for clarinet, cello and piano is considerably more substantial than that, and while it may not be his deepest work, the light-hearted trio shows the young firebrand pushing the boundaries of galant style.

 Larry Combs joined Newman and Liu for a graceful performance that put across the playful wit of the opening movement—sparkling passagework by Liu—as much as the melancholy expression of  the Adagio, with burnished solos and sensitive phrasing by Newman and Combs. Beethoven capitalized on the popularity of a rather ditsy  opera tune by the otherwise forgotten Joseph Weigl in the finale, which made for lively interplay by all three musicians and a rollicking coda.

 Music of Hindemith provided the astringent palate cleanser with his Horn Sonata. One of the composer’s many sonatas written for solo wind instruments and piano, the Horn Sonata is one of his Gebrauchsmusik or “utility music,” a designation Hindemith probably wishes he never made, since it suggests something vaguely useful and rather mechanical.

 Written in 1939 at a time when Hindemith and his Jewish wife fled to Switzerland, the Horn Sonata is not directly programmatic, though it’s hard not to feel something of the time in the harsh military-like rhythms of the opening movement.

Gail Williams

The style is characteristic of Hindemith’s restless, emphatic angularity—not easy music to love—though the nostalgic second movement seems to look back to a more peaceful time and its stoic sadness was sensitively conveyed by hornist Gail Williams. The keyboard writing here is as treacherous as the horn part and Liu and Williams were at their finest in the bravura final movement, bringing clarity and vigor to Hindemith’s  knotty neo-Baroque counterpoint.

 The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Monday at Gottlieb Hall at the Merit School of Music.  www.chicagochambermusic.org. 312-225-5226.

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