Ars Viva explores the Austro-German road less taken with three delightful rarities

Mon Dec 06, 2010 at 2:55 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Alan Heatherington led Ars Viva in works of Schubert. Schumann and Brahms Sunday afternoon at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts.

If you wanted to experience four of the five greatest Austro-German composers on Sunday, it was there for the asking—with a little fast driving. Music of the Baroque opened the first of its two performances of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in the evening and Alan Heatherington offered a late afternoon program of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. (For once, Beethoven was the odd man out.)

Characteristically for Ars Viva’s artistic director, the usual repertorial suspects were absent, with Heatherington programming three fascinating rarities of the familiar triumvirate at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.

Brahms would go on to write greater works than his Serenade No. 1 in D major, but in many ways he never quite captured the freshness or charm of this youthful work. The Serenade amounted to a cautious dipping of the toe in the symphonic waters for Brahms and even with the unwieldy six-movement structure—and an outright crib from Handel—the serenade is a marvelous work, chock full of melody. The buoyant opening theme for horn is irresistible, and while the music is mostly on the lightish side, the expansive Adagio clearly points the way to Brahms’ great slow movements to come.

In addition to his informed and informal verbal notes, Heatherington always seems to find just the right tempos and approach for Brahms, and the Ars Viva members responded with a notably vibrant and energized account of this delightful score.

The playing was not as consistently polished as usual from this ensemble; while generally solid, Michael Buckwalter failed to emerge unscathed from the challenging writing for principal horn, and violas sounded tentative Sunday, wanting in definition.

The balance was made up by the nimble, rich-toned violins and some wonderfully evocative wind playing, particularly J. Lawrie Bloom whose clarinet captured the right al fresco charm of this music.

Likewise, the first half offered two lesser-heard works by Schumann and Schubert.

Were it not lacking a slow movement, Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo and Finale would likely be better known as the composer’s Symphony No. 5 (or some other numeral), rather than a semi-obscure torso. Still, as Heatherington noted, there is plenty of inspired music here even in its uncompleted form.

The conductor led a trim, buoyant and lightly sprung reading that kept the music in scale while bringing out the melodic invention, without any special pleading. The scherzo is particularly characteristic with its galumphing main theme and lyrical middle section. Heatheringon and the orchestra provided superbly committed and polished advocacy, with the finale—the finest of the three movements—notably fiery and exciting.

It’s misleading to speak of any Schubert works as “early,” for a composer who died at 31, yet the Symphony No. 3, one of many works written in a notably productive year, was penned at just age 18.

After the deceptively weighty opening chord, the symphony is a sheer delight, spirited and tuneful. Heatherington balanced the music deftly, giving dramatic emphasis when needed but allowing the effervescent melodic charm full rein as well. The woodwinds were again superb, bringing out the rustic Austrian flavor of the middle movements.

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