Winter Chamber Festival continues with memorable Tchaikovsky

Mon Jan 18, 2010 at 3:47 pm

By Gerald Fisher

Sunday’s venturesome installment of the Winter Chamber Music Festival at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall demonstrated that chamber music need not be tame music. The high quality of the music-making is a tribute to the festival, now in its 14th year at Northwestern. There is a real sense of occasion about these events and Sunday’s artists delivered rousing performances, which brought a sizable audience to its feet.

The performers were the pick of some of the most active regional artists and comprised violinist Ilya Kaler, cellist Kenneth Olsen, pianist Lori Kaufman, and— in a rarely heard serenade by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu—the paired clarinets of J. Lawrie Bloom and Stephen Cohen along with the viola of Rami Solomonow.

The Moscow-born Kaler, who has had a significant international career (Kogan and Tretyakov figure among his early masters), began the program with a fluent traversal of the 1933 arrangement for violin and piano of five pieces from Stravinsky’s ballet Pulcinella, called by the composer Suite Italienne. The performance, sober rather than sparkling, set the tone for the evening: high-octane virtuosity and sensitive collaboration. Lori Kaufman shone as an equal partner in the duos.

The Martinu Serenade No. 4 (a late work written in 1951) is, like much of this prolific composer’s music, by turns congenial and disquieting. The unusual ensemble pits violin, viola and cello against two clarinets in a conversation running the gamut from elegiac to folkish. There was very strong playing by all, with the viola and cello outstanding in their expressive richness. The clarinets added harmonic variety and some klezmer-like humor to the piece.

The great triumph of the evening came after intermission, with a stunning performance of one of chamber music’s more underappreciated masterpieces, the deeply moving Tchaikovsky Piano Trio. Pianist Kaufman prefaced the performance with a reference to the earthquake in Haiti, establishing a level of seriousness that was more than fulfilled by the playing.

The Trio is divided into two unequal parts. The first is an elegiac sonata-allegro in which Tchaikovsky mourned his great mentor, pianist Nicolai Rubinstein, and the music was driven, as it was throughout, by Kaufman’s dynamic pianism. The second, longer, section is a set of variations that test the technique and stylistic command of the artists. The idiomatic and soulful violin of Kaler was outstanding and cellist Olson brought an equal amount of intensity and tonal richness.

One reservation: the acoustics of the hall were not ideal for this particular blend of instruments––favoring the piano and drying out the string sound––which put a bit of a damper on an otherwise sterling performance.

Posted in Performances

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