Berlin and CSO musicians join forces for an engaging night of chamber music

Wed Mar 02, 2011 at 12:33 pm

By Jesse McQuarters

The Scharoun Ensemble, members of the Berlin Philharmonic, performed chamber works with CSO musicians Tuesday night at Symphony Center.

The Berlin Philharmonic musicians who comprise the Scharoun Ensemble joined with their Chicago Symphony Orchestra counterparts Tuesday night at Symphony Center to present works by Beethoven and Mendelssohn in an impressive, if not always technically immaculate, program of cornerstone chamber works.

Beethoven’s Sextet in E flat major for winds (with an extended low-end boost by bassist Peter Rigelbauer, uncredited in the program) is a pleasurable romp in a Haydnesque, often bucolic landscape. Instead of the heaven-storming drama that characterizes Beethoven’s later chamber music, this work leans towards simple joyousness, evident right away in the lilting clarinets.

That quality was balanced by a rich sonority from the rest of the players in this performance. The ensemble occasionally parted to make way for moments of solo brilliance that sometimes leaned toward raucousness—the horn rips, a prominent example.

There can be nothing so profound as Beethoven in an adagio state of mind, but the combined ensemble of outstanding Berlin and Chicago musicians appeared to have some lack of familiarity with each other’s styles. That may have precluded them from the kind of daring phrasing and tempo shifts that would have made the second movement thrilling, rather than simply engaging.  The ensemble took great joy in the counterpoint between the minuet’s brusque opening horn calls and the simplicity of the trio, and followed clarinetist Alexander Bader’s lead to great effect in the finale.

Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet is an Aconcagua of chamber music, particularly amazing since the composer wrote this masterwork at age 16.

At times the gregarious playing of the Scharoun musicians was in marked contrast to their more reserved CSO colleagues—-a style that served the soaring opening well, but led to occasional missteps in intonation that proved distracting, marginally diminishing the overall effect.

Highlights included the brief, spooky viola interlude leading to the recapitulation in the opening movement, and the beautifully shaped cello lines in the second.  Infectious energy permeated the sweet Midsummer Night’s Dream-like scherzo, and the constant runs and crashing forward momentum in the finale put Mendelssohn’s youthful vivacity on full display.

The Scharoun Ensemble (named after the architect who designed the orchestra’s concert hall) finished the program with Beethoven’s Septet, a seven-movement “everything but the kitchen sink” piece that was incredibly popular in the composer’s lifetime, much to his eventual chagrin.

It’s easy to see the appeal—-the opening melody would have been right at home in an Italian opera house, and the violin cadenza in the finale allowed individual virtuosity to shine through.  At times the solo-minded first violinist didn’t quite integrate into the cohesive fabric of the ensemble, but overall the performance was a heroic and musically interesting journey through one of Beethoven’s signature works.

Jesse McQuarters earned degrees from Indiana University-Bloomington in double bass performance and audio engineering. In addition to freelancing as a bassist, he has served on the faculty of the Music Institute of Chicago. Jesse is a producer of syndicated programming for the WFMT Radio Network, including “Exploring Music with Bill McGlaughlin,”  and is passionate about all things related to classical music and its capacity to connect people, open up new worlds, and nourish the soul.

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