Chicago Chamber Musicians open season with intense and powerful Bartok

Wed Sep 22, 2010 at 2:02 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Joseph Genualdi and Jasmine Lin rehearse Monday night’s concert by the Chicago Chamber Musicians. Photo: Nelson Fitch

“Too squeaky,” explained violist Anthony Devroye about his walking off stage to request a different chair after the first movement of Bela Bartok’s String Quartet No. 2.

For several decades, many listeners had the same reaction to Bartok’s quartets overall. But in the taut, knife-edged performance by the Chicago Chamber Musicians at Gottlieb Hall, these gifted players made an eloquent case for the Hungarian composer’s music.

Bartok’s quartet was the centerpiece of Monday night’s season-opening program for CCM, flanked by works of Ernst von Dohnanyi and Robert Schumann.

A product of the dark days of the First World War, Bartok’s Second String Quartet advances the individual approach to string writing fitfully glimpsed in its predecessor. It’s hard not to sense some of the contemporary political landscape surrounding 1917 Budapest in the dissonant tritone that dominates the music. As always with Bartok, there are folk-like elements but even here the populist fragments are crunched and distorted, as with the drone notes and the brief cafe tune, amid the acid-tinged harmonics

Violinists Joseph Genualdi and Jasmine Lin, guest violist Devroye, and cellist Stephen Balderston provided first-class advocacy, powerfully putting across the brooding astringency and urgent agitation of the opening movement, with Genualdi’s sweet-toned violin conveying the fragile fleeting lyrcism.  The brutalizing oscillations of the middle movement were attacked with violent intensity by all. With the four musicians watching and listening to each other with daunting concentration, the finale was played with deep expression, this meditative music moving into barren desolation and deep tragedy. A terrific performance by all, and a highlight of this season-opening program.

Erno von Dohnanyi was a contemporary of Bartok’s, as well as a consistent advocate of his compatriot’s music.  In this 50th anniversary year of Dohnanyi’s death, his music has been seeing selective revival, including the Sextet, heard Monday night.

Written for string trio, clarinet, horn and piano, the Sextet breathes some of the rich textures and rhapsodic qualities of Brahms, without ever touching the master’s artistry. For all the facility of the composer’s handling and mixing of the six instruments, there’s a lack of a distinctive melodic profile and individual voice; some passages seem derivative, as when Brahms’ Horn Trio drops in for a visit.

Still without convincing us that it’s a great work, Dohnanyi’s Sextet is undeniably well crafted and entertaining.  The CCM players–Genualdi, Devroye, Balderston, clarinetist Larry Combs, hornist Gail Williams, and pianist Meng-Chieh Liu–provided a robust, fully committed performance, with Liu’s rollicking way with the finale’s main theme particularly delightful.

A more significant anniversary this year is the birthday bicentenntial of Schumann, who was represented with his Piano Quartet in E flat major.  Written in 1842, the work hails from Schumann’s extraordinary chamber-music year, which also saw the completion of his three string quartets, Piano Quintet and Fantasiestücke. The quartet is also a product of his happy early years of marriage with Clara, and the music breathes an air of contentment amid the bravura writing, with a melodic wealth striking even by Schumann’s standard.

Jasmine Lin was the violinist for this performance and she clearly sees this work as Schumann at his most Romantic, launching the opening movement in impassioned full-blooded style. If at times the music seemed a bit too hard driven in the opening Allegro, Lin, Devroye Balderston and Liu also provided the right lyric contrast. The skittering energy of the Scherzo was deftly balanced with the two trios, and Balderston floated a refined and glowing cello solo to launch the variations of the Andante. The high-flying finale delivered the requisite payoff, with the CCM members’ exuberant playing providing a thrilling finish to the evening.


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