CCM presents a season highlight with memorable Schubert Octet

Wed Mar 14, 2012 at 12:34 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Franz Schubert’s Octet was performed by Chicago Chamber Musicians Monday night at Gottlieb Hall.

Over six hundred songs, the great song-cycles, the Unfinished and Great symphonies, and the late piano sonatas and string quartets. Franz Schubert created so many masterpieces in his brief 31 years that the volume and extent remain almost unfathomable.

Still, such was the richness, eloquence and idiomatic musicianship of Schubert’s Octet, as performed by Chicago Chamber Musicians Monday night at Gottlieb Hall, that you felt you were hearing one of the very highest peaks of Schubert’s oeuvre.

Scored for clarinet, horn, bassoon, string quartet and bass, Schubert’s 1824 Octet is cast on the grandest scale, spanning six movements and running well over an hour. Even by Schubert’s standard, the munificent thematic fount is astounding, with the mix of al fresco outdoor serenade and expressive depth serving up one ineffably natural melody after another, the composer finding a striking array of timbral colorings and instrumental combinations.

Monday’s performance was not entirely airtight technically with some fitful lapses from hornist Gail Williams, and Dennis Michel’s over-reticent bassoon could have used a stronger profile at times.

Yet this was largely a memorable and delightful performance that didn’t seem a minute too long. The opening introduction had all due weight and grandeur, and time seemed to stand still in the expansive Adagio with especially fine delicacy to the interweaving of the solo lines of clarinetist Larry Combs and violinist Joseph Genualdi. The finale almost seems to veer off into the dark abyss of the late B-flat piano sonata with dark tremolos that open and interrupt the movement, though the Octet manages to finish off in the largely predominant high spirits with an optimistic conclusion.

Four years after retiring from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Larry Combs’ technique remains formidable and he brought out the rustic village-band quality, matched by Genualdi’s more edgy and agressive violin work. The two guest artists were especially inspired additions to this performance:  bassist Peter Lloyd provided a rock-solid foundation and cellist Wendy Warner played with a richly, burnished tone throughout and brought jarring intensity to the finale’s ominous tremolos.

The first half consisted of two highly contrasted works, one a CCM premiere (increasingly, a rare thing with the group having cut a wide swathe through chamber repertoire for a quarter of a century).

Heard in its CCM debut, Bartok’s Violin Rhapsody No. 2 with its mix of Romanian peasant and Hungarian gypsy tunes proved more of an equal partnership than usual with violinist Jasmine Lin and pianist Meng-Chieh Liu.

Lin seemed intent on emphasizing the flattened harmonics and hard, folk edges of the opening slow lassu section though her playing might have been a bit more evocative. So too the violent oscillations and gearshifts of the mercurial friss finale could have been a bit more manic and unhinged but this was largely a powerful and forcefully projected performance by both CCM members.

Like Schubert’s Octet, Saint-Saens’ Septet, which opened the evening, is also scored for large forces. though it doesn’t plumb the expressive depths of Schubert’s work. Still the Septet—for trumpet, string quartet and piano—is as consummately crafted and melodic as one would expect from the French master.

In addition to his wryly witty verbal introduction, Charles Geyer provided polished, deftly balanced trumpet playing, clarion in the fanfare-like opening and mellow and graceful in the central section of the ensuing Menuet.

Yet it is the piano that is the fulcrum in this work and Liu provided sparkling and bravura keyboard work throughout. With equally fine playing by violinists Lin and Genualdi, violist Solomonow, cellist Warner and bass Lloyd, the ensemble built the surprisingly pensive Intermede section to a throbbing climax, and the engaging finale with its buoyant main theme proved delightful, the tearaway coda thrown off with dazzling virtuosity.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “CCM presents a season highlight with memorable Schubert Octet”

  1. Posted Mar 16, 2012 at 8:29 am by Mark Head, MD

    As a bass player, I’d agree about the bassoon, though I wasn’t impressed by any lapses in horn playing.

    Lin’s playing seemed dead-on to me with plenty of the required mania. The pianist, very fine indeed, should have dropped the lid to a lower station. Not necessary for the St.Saens

    For some reason, pianists aren’t doing that these days in accompaniment. Which is what the lid is for.

    Like set-drummers, they almost always over-play singers and instrumentalists at times, in duo. One feels in the soloist often a struggle, a drowning.

    Too bad. It used not to be so. In the last couple decades, pianists have gotten uppity, thinking that “Sonata for Violin and Piano” means what it says….with open-lid & steroids.

    Bitch bitch, I’ll cool down.

    What a fine performance all round, for this cowpoke.



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