Ravinia marks 25th anniversary of Steans Institute with impassioned performances

Sat Jul 06, 2013 at 11:55 am

By Tim Christiansen

Pianist Jeremy Denk performed with Steans Institute colleagues in Cesar Franck’s Piano Quintet Friday night at Ravinia’s Martin Theatre.

Ravinia’s intimate Martin Theatre proved the ideal performing space for Friday night’s energetic, impassioned chamber music concert.  The event is part of this summer’s 25th Anniversary celebration of Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute, with all of the evening’s performers also serving on the Steans faculty.

The program featured three substantial chamber works from contrasting composers.  Each was performed with passion and conviction, but Franck’s Piano Quintet in F Minor was the standout.

Premiered in 1880, Franck’s quintet is a late work in his oeuvre and one of his most emotionally wrought and powerful.  At nearly forty minutes, it is incredibly demanding on the performers, who must sustain the score’s high intensity while balancing the contrasting musical material.

The musicians who took the Martin stage did the piece justice, providing a memorable musical experience. Jeremy Denk performed the highly demanding piano part along with violinists Miriam Fried and Mihaela Martin, violist Atar Arad and cellist Frans Helmerson.

The balance of the string quartet and piano was ideal, and the musicianship unified, the players often at the edge of their seats keenly listening to one another.

Denk’s performance was particularly striking.  He played with fluid mastery of the keyboard and spent almost half the time with his eyes away from the score, closely watching his fellow musicians.

Preceding the Franck was a stirring performance of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 3. Premiered in 1946, the Third Quartet is considered the Russian composer’s first masterpiece of the genre.  At its premiere each movement had a descriptive war title, subsequently removed due to Soviet authorities who considered it a “war quartet.”

The same string players—with Martin here taking the first violin chair—demonstrated the quartet’s large color palette in the first movement. Martin played the primary folk infused melody with a light buoyancy and innocence over a gritty, jagged accompaniment of very sharp and precise staccato figures.

The third movement was frighteningly spectacular, with  the musicians performing the thrashing rhythms, high register passages, and moments of complete disarray with ferocity.
The standout performer was Mihaela Martin, who played with hair-raising intensity, clear tone, and careful phrasing, almost as if the piece were written for her.

The first piece on the program was Mozart’s “Viola” Quintet in C Minor.  It was published in 1789 and, characteristic of late Mozart, is more serious and dramatic in style.

Violist Paul Biss, joined the quartet and Fried played first violin.  It was an elegant performance and an idyllic start to the program. Their intonation was almost perfect and the phrasing and articulation unified.  What was particularly noticeable about this performance was their attention to the harmonies and inner voices with Helmerson providing well-rounded bass support.

The third movement, Menuetto in Canone, demonstrated Mozart’s mastery of counterpoint.  The voices of the canon ebbed and flowed as the quartet emphasized each entrance, maintaining proper dynamic contrast and balance.

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