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Ups and Downs

August 6, 2005

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By Lisa Hirsch

[email protected]'s title for this year's chamber music series, “Beethoven: Center of Gravity,” was fully borne out by the fifth program, heard in its first performance on Saturday. The concert consisted of three long, demanding, and varied works, all landmarks of the 19th-century repertory: Beethoven's E-flat Piano Trio Op. 70, no. 2, Schumann's song cycle Dichterliebe, and Brahms's Piano Quintet, Op. 34.

The opening Beethoven trio, which shares its opus number with the “Ghost” trio, got an honest, unfussy, and charming reading from pianist Gilbert Kalish, violinist Jorja Fleezanis, and cellist Ralph Kirshbaum. Balances were always good, the piano never drowning out the strings. I especially liked the second movement — a set of variations, full of mock high drama and tremendous wit, that the trio played deliciously, making the most of Beethoven's many teases and surprises.

Kalish returned in Dichterliebe, with baritone Christópheren Nomura; they combined for what I found a puzzling and frustrating performance. (The ovation at the end suggested I was much in the minority.) In the Beethoven, Kalish put the composer front and center and played reticently. This worked fine, given the extraverted writing and the amount of personality Fleezanis and Kirshbaum brought to the performance. In the Schumann, where the luscious piano lines call out for a loving and personal approach with plenty of rubato, Kalish sounded prosaic and uninvolved, or, at best, analytical. By contrast, Nomura, evidently striving for “involvement” and “expressivity,” couldn't leave well enough alone and just sing the vocal lines. Instead, we heard a series of effects, straight from the school of Renée Fleming. His physical manner changed markedly with every song in an unnecessary and distracting attempt to reflect the changing moods of the songs. He sang soft phrases nearly sotto voce or nearly in falsetto, losing the core of the tone. He hammered loud phrases. He couldn't keep his tone consistent and centered from phrase to phrase. Perhaps the baritone version of the cycle just doesn't lie well for him: he sounded uncomfortable at the very top, more relaxed but somewhat gravelly at the bottom. In any event, there's no excuse for the unmusical phrasing.

Out of step

A few of the songs were painfully loud, too. The piano — a Steinway with gloriously beautiful and even tone — was fully open, and both performers kept the volume turned up as if in Davies rather than in tiny, 180-seat Stent Family Hall. A pair of songs demonstrated what the two might have done together: a suitably neurotic “Und wüssen die Blumen” and “Ich hab' im Traum geweinet,” which was grippingly sung and played, full of real, not faked, drama. If only the whole cycle had been sung with such intimacy and intensity!

There was no shortage of either in the sensational closing performance of the Brahms Piano Quintet. Fleezanis and Kirshbaum were joined by second violinist Ian Swensen, violist Cynthia Phelps, and pianist Wu Han. Together, they fairly breathed fire, from the hushed and mysterious opening to the very end, where, phrase by phrase, the performance grew to a wrenching and nearly unbearable level of intensity. Not that there weren't many appropriate moments of relaxation and tenderness, as in the sighing, beautifully sustained, slow movement. The broadly-played, expansive melody of the trio contrasted sharply with the militaristic scherzo — which was taken noticeably faster, to great effect, on the repeat.

For all the beautifully-illuminated detail, what lingers most in memory is the sustained concentration and sheer grandeur of both the music and the playing. The five players fully understood, and fully communicated, the enormous scale of the Quintet. At times, despite the small forces, you felt you were hearing a symphony orchestra. What a group they made, with Fleezanis's warm and noble tone contrasting with Swensen's lighter, sweeter sound, Kirshbaum providing a solid foundation, and Phelps gorgeously, and always audibly, filling the middle range. They're not appearing together again during this festival — but there's always next year, and we can also hope that this performance was recorded and will be released on [email protected] LIVE.

(Lisa Hirsch, a technical writer, studied music at Brandeis and SUNY/Stony Brook.)

©2005 Lisa Hirsch, all rights reserved