Memorable Tchaikovsky opens North Shore Chamber Music Festival

Thu Jun 04, 2015 at 1:50 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Ariel Quartet performed music of Beethoven Wednesday night at the North Shore Chamber Music Festival in Northbrook.
The Ariel Quartet performed music of Beethoven Wednesday night at the North Shore Chamber Music Festival in Northbrook.

It’s hard to believe, but there was a time not all that long ago when Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor was more talked about than performed. The celebrated recording by Itzhak Perlman, Lynn Harrell and Vladimir Ashkenazy (EMI/Angel) did much to restore the work to its current popularity though it still took decades to nudge its way into the regular repertory.

Tchaikovsky’s epic Trio was the principal work Wednesday night in the opening concert of the North Shore Chamber Music Festival at the Village Presbyterian Church in Northbrook. And, as performed by violinist and festival artistic director Vadim Gluzman, cellist Mark Kosower and pianist William Wolfram, this was as compelling and richly idiomatic a performance of this fascinating work as one is ever likely to hear.

Subtitled “In memory of a great artist,” Tchaikovsky’s homage to his colleague Nikolai Rubinstein was said to be inspired by a picnic excursion in which the two men encountered a band of Russian folk musicians. Yet the epic scale and expressive scope of the Piano Trio is, as Wolfram said in his introduction, “almost operatic.” The final movement’s variations are among Tchaikovsky’s most inspired achievements. Not only do they appear to reflect the mercurial personality of the prickly yet charismatic Rubinstein, but the remarkable range and variety seem to encompass something broader and deeper of the Russian soul itself, in tandem with the elegiac gloom of the opening movement.

Even a “popcorn” cell phone interruption (twice) didn’t disturb the momentum and communicative thrust of Wednesday’s remarkable performance. With Wolfram’s powerful keyboard work anchoring the music, Gluzman and Kosower proved wonderfully simpatico colleagues, playing with focused, gleaming tone that strongly conveyed the melancholy of the opening movement. The variations were fully characterized with the burnished tone of Kosower–principal of the Cleveland Orchestra—consistently beautiful. The fugal variation went with fizzing energy and the ensuing section had a gentle wistful quality that was most affecting. Launched with immense vitality and swagger, the finale was exhilarating with the coda’s reprise of the somber opening theme feeling resonant and inevitable.

In the first half, the Ariel Quartet made an impressive festival debut in Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” Quartet in E minor, Op. 59, no.2.

The young Israeli ensemble has a lean, slightly astringent sonority well suited to this middle-period work. The musicians firmly conveyed the minor-key drama of the opening movement, bringing a physical quality to their playing, and often swaying with the music. Yet the musicianship was always close-knit, the Ariel members watching and listening to each other attentively. If the otherworldly heights of the sublime Adagio weren’t quite scaled, the playing had a glowing radiance and went with a natural ease and conversational ebb and flow.

The players’ off-the-beat accents in the ensuing Allegretto put across the music’s restless agitation. The playing was especially engaging in the Russian folksong passage–a theme also famously borrowed by Mussorgsky for Boris Godunov–with the musicians batting it back and forth with light agility. The performance was rounded off with a spirited account of the galumphing finale, dynamic details closely observed without ever sounding pedantic. The Ariel Quartet is clearly a greatly gifted ensemble whose star is on the rise.

The evening led off with Alfred Schnittke’s Suite in the Old Style, heard in an arrangement for string quintet. In this artful homage the Russian composer mines 17th- and 18th-century models. Unlike his Moz-Art à la Haydn, Schnittke mostly plays it straight until the finale where his acerbic style breaks through the surface gallanteries.

Ilya Kaler’s elegant, sweet-toned violin nicely brought out the Rococo charm, backed by refined tone and nimble articulation from his colleagues in the neo-Baroque fugues. Yet the players also conveyed Schnittke’s subversive element, as with the duel of hard pizzicatos between Kaler and Gluzman.

The North Shore Chamber Music Festival continues 7:30 p.m. Friday at The Village Presbyterian Church in Northbrook. The program offers Golijov’s The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind and Schumann’s Piano Quintet and duo arrangement of Bach’s Chaconne.; 847-370-3984.

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