Brahms, Shostakovich and retooled Dvořák mingle at the North Shore Chamber Festival

Sat Jun 16, 2018 at 11:21 am

By Michael Cameron

Vadim Gluzman performed music of Brahms and Shostakovich with colleagues at the North Shore Chamber Music Festival Friday night in Northbrook.

With an embarrassment of repertorial riches at their disposal, chamber musicians don’t often feel obliged to seek out arrangements. But the North Shore Chamber Music Festival dusted off two curious transcriptions in their three-concert series this week at the Village Presbyterian Church in Northbrook.

On Wednesday the transformation took the form of a reduction of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, the orchestral accompaniment trimmed to a mere five strings. An even rarer metamorphosis was featured Friday night, as Dvořák’s Sonatina for Violin and Piano was presented in the guise of a clarinet quintet, crafted by the renowned English clarinetist Jack Brymer.

Dvořák’s sunny duo was his last chamber composition of his U.S. sojourn and, as was the intention of the composer, is usually performed today by young musicians. Without the virtuosic demands of most recital repertoire, its melodic charm has tempted many would-be arrangers. Fashioning the solo line for another instrument is no great feat, but reworking a piano line for multiple instruments is a greater test, one that Brymer passes only intermittently.

Clarinetist Ilya Shterenberg and the Ariel Quartet found a surprising Mozartian vein in the major key areas of the first movement, with the sonatina’s melodic material distributed mostly between the clarinetist and first violinist Gershon Gerchikov. The keyboard syncopations didn’t translate well to strings, but the folk-tinged melodies were turned out with idiomatic sensitivity. The ensemble seemed a natural fit for Dvořák’s soulful tunes in the second movement (performed as an isolated excerpt dubbed “Indian Lament” by Fritz Kreisler), but string tremolos and trills seemed out of place, and a few hushed clarinet lines failed to emerge.

The pizzicato accompaniments worked better buttressing the gurgling wind passages in the scherzo, and the rejiggered instrumentation enhanced Dvořák’s nostalgia for his homeland in the finale. The other fine players of the Ariel were Alexandra Kazovsky (violin), Amit Even-Tov (cello) and Jan Grüning (viola).

The central European idiom was again the focus in a burnished, richly textured reading of Brahms’ early Sextet No. 1 in B-flat major. The composer virtually invented the genre, a mid-point between chamber and orchestral music that served as one of many practice runs in his long-delayed confrontation with the string quartet and symphony, ever haunted by the shadow of Beethoven’s legacy.

Violinist and festival artistic director Vadim Gluzman took the lead with consistently lustrous playing, while cellist Ani Aznavoorian and violist Masumi Per Rostad (formerly of the Pacifica Quartet) excelled in their numerous lyrical profusions. The cellist’s expressive outpouring in the opening bars of a leisurely paced first movement set the stage, while Per Rostad’s velvety-toned first statement in the second movement was the opening salvo in a succession of vividly characterized variations.

Some entanglements in the blistering coda notwithstanding, the scherzo was an infectious romp. A lighter touch might have provided a needed lilt in the softer bits in the finale, but otherwise it served as a rousing, exuberant conclusion. Violinist Lisa Shihoten, Grüning, and cellist Mark Kosower (principal of the Cleveland Orchestra) ably filled out the ensemble.

Sandwiched between these two upbeat works was Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, a composition as bleak as any in the chamber canon. The composer had much to mourn in 1944, and this grief was palpable in a compelling reading by Gluzman, Kosower, and pianist William Wolfram.

The cellist’s austere artificial harmonics set a tone of anguished isolation in the opening pages, with spare piano utterances that remained, sometimes too obsessively, deep in the background. The violinist tore through the blistering arpeggios at the outset of a briskly paced scherzo, and the ensemble’s off-beat accents were nearly brutal in their insistence.

Wolfram’s desolate incantations in the Largo movement set the table for Gluzman’s impassioned pleas, and the finale was a gruesome dance macabre, the trio painting a lurid portrait of SS guards forcing their captives to dance over their own graves.

The North Shore Chamber Music Festival concludes 7:30 p.m. Saturday with works by Vivaldi, Puccini, Rota, Vasks, and Tchaikovsky.

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