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Eos EnsembleAdmirable, but ...

Eos Ensemble

July 10, 2009

Old First Concerts

A program titled “Romancing the Voice” opened Old First Church’s summer season Friday evening, with the Eos Ensemble and guest mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack as featured soloist. The basic ensemble of five chamber musicians was made up of violinists Craig Reiss and Mariya Borozina, violist Caroline Lee, cellist Thalia Moore, and pianist Marilyn Thompson. Their programming proved inordinately interesting, though the quality of the performances were mixed from these otherwise excellent musicians.

Mack opened the concert with Brahms’ two superb songs Op. 91, for voice accompanied by viola as well as piano. That was followed by the rarely performed Berlioz song La Captive, Op. 12, in its revised version for voice, cello, and piano. Then came Brahms’ String Quartet No. 2, Op. 51. The second half opened with Mack singing Strauss’ famous Morgen, Op. 27, No. 4, also in its revised version (for violin and piano), before the concluding Second Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81, by Dvořák.

The adventures of the evening formed a prime attraction, for me at least. Although the two Brahms compositions and the Dvořák Piano Quintet show up from time to time, neither is standard fare, whereas the versions of the Berlioz and Strauss were new to me — and I’m an authentic-repertoire freak.

Berlioz must have been especially fond of La Captive, which he set to a poem in Victor Hugo’s “Orientale” collection. He originally composed it for voice and piano, then reset it no fewer than five times, of which Friday’s version was the third. (The last three are with orchestra.) It’s a lovely yet highly restrained song.

There’s no showing off, just high musicality, with the cello having beautiful solos as well as adding richness to the texture. The players are like equal partners, which also applies to the other three songs with obbligato string parts.

The performance, however, struck me as too loud, with Mack singing in full operatic voice and her partners striving to keep up. That was surprising from an Adler Fellow who has sung important roles with the Merola Program, and indeed a few with San Francisco Opera.

Longing for MoreBrahms composed his Op. 91, No. 2 song (known as “Longing”) as a present for his friend the violinist-violist Joseph Joachim. It was a present to honor the birth of Joachim’s first child. Joachim’s wife had an lovely alto voice, so the three of them could perform the song at home with Brahms as pianist. It was later that Brahms added a second song for publication, a lullaby. The pity is that he didn’t add more songs to the pair, for it’s such an apt combination. These were particularly well-done.

Strauss’ Morgen (Morning), his most famous song, was also a tribute, written for his singer-wife, Pauline. Again, it was composed for simply voice and piano, yet the version with obbligato violin is ever so much more expressive, the violin soloist standing in equal partnership with the voice — especially the languishing opening violin solo. These were Mack’s finest performances of the concert.

Brahms’ Second String Quartet sounded clearly underrehearsed. Ensemble playing was itchy, as occasionally was intonation. Worse than either was a moment at the close of the first movement where the final two chords were like a joke in poor taste.

Not more than two thirds of the correct notes showed up. It was as if the players were sight reading, though this piece is too tricky for that. Admittedly, these are mostly members of the San Francisco Opera’s orchestra. The recently completed season may have impinged too heavily on their time. Even so, this performance was a mess.

This was not the case with the performance of Dvořák’s final Quintet, which was excellent. His First Piano Quintet, his Op. 5, didn’t please, so he rewrote it; it has never attained repertory status, though it’s not bad. Also set in A major, the Op. 5 Quintet contains nowhere near the masterful quality of the second. Indeed, the Op. 81 stands right up there with the Schumann and Brahms Piano Quintets as major chamber music repertory.

The work gave pianist Thompson a long-deserved chance to shine, and boy oh boy did she ever. That piano part is of nearly concerto difficulty, yet Thompson breezed through it with perfect style, delicate or storming as needed. That also applies to the four string players, making for a bravura display of musicianship as a finale. It and those two Brahms Op. 91 songs were the stars of the evening, but the others could have done with another trip or two to the woodshed.

With over two hours of programming, there were no encores.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.