SCINTILLATING TRIO AT DVORAK FESTIVAL

By Lawrence Budmen 

The music of the Czech master Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) is regarded as part of the standard concert repertoire. Yet only a small number of Dvorak's scores are given frequent performances. The composer's reputation largely rests on the last three symphonies (including the famous "New World"), the heroic Cello Concerto, a couple of chamber works, and the irresistible "Slavonic Dances." His operas are only now beginning to receive international performances - particularly "The Devil and Kate" and "Dimitri" (a sequel to Moussorgsky's "Boris Godunov"). The lovely Violin Concerto has achieved some repertoire status while the Piano Concerto (a bravura showpiece if ever there was one) has become a specialty of only a few virtuoso pianists. The beautiful earlier symphonies seem to attract the attention of mostly Czech and Slavic conductors while the boldly imaginative "Symphonic Variations" are rarely played. (That wonderful score was once a repertoire staple of the great Arturo Toscanini.) Some of Dvorak's most subtle, ethereally beautiful writing is found in his chamber music. In observance of the 100th anniversary of the composer's death, Festival Miami 2004 (in collaboration with the Friends of Chamber Music) presented "The Year of Dvorak" - a three concert exploration of the composer's more intimate compositional output. The series was capped on October 10 at the University of Miami's Gusman Concert Hall with an impassioned, superbly expressive performance of the "Piano Trio No.4 in E Minor," Opus 90 ("Dumky") - one of Dvorak's greatest masterpieces - by the Kalichstein-Laredo Robinson Trio. 

After some 27 years on the concert stage, the combination of Joseph Kalichstein, Jamie Laredo, and Sharon Robinson has reached an artistic zenith. Like a great wine, their music making has mellowed. Today they play with a warmth, artistic poise, and musicality that define greatness! In Dvorak's "Dumky" Robinson played the principal theme of the Andante with a golden, burnished tone and characterful rubato that sang of yearning melancholy. Kalichstein's sensitive, detailed pianism perfectly dovetailed every subtle variation of melody and rhythm. Laredo's sterling tone and splendid musicianship produced both lyricism and fire. (For more than four decades, Laredo has been an artistic paragon - a patrician musician with impeccable technique and the most elegant sense of musical ebb and flow.) In the concluding Allegro, the trio brought dizzying virtuosity and Slavic abandon to this scintillating music. A magnificent performance by three great artists! 

At the opening concert of the series (October 8) the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson threesome were joined by violinist John Dalley and violist Michael Tree (both members of the Guarneri String Quartet) for Dvorak's genial "Piano Quintet No.2 in A Major," Opus 81. Kalichstein's exquisite, pearl toned rendition of the intoxicating theme of the Dumka: Andante con moto was beautifully articulated. Tree's beautiful tone and elasticity of phrasing distinguished his elegant viola solo. The Scherzo-Furiant was vivace indeed - played with incredible clarity and precision. The spirited Czech dance of the Allegro finale really sparkled. A heavenly performance of a chamber music masterpiece! This glorious work could hardly be played better. A truly felicitous collaboration! 

Laredo's leadership in the first violin chair (in the Piano Quintet) brought tremendous energy and enthusiasm from the two Guarneri players (Dalley and Tree). For four decades the Guarneri Quartet has been the Gold standard of the chamber music world. In recent seasons their performances have sometimes been frayed. The sparkle and Úlan that were once the quartet's hallmark have sometimes eluded them. Their performances at the Dvorak Festival were variable. The group's first violin Arnold Steinhardt, a fine musician and a great teacher, seems to be having technical problems. Too often his intonation strayed and his articulation was less than precise. At times his tone was less than beautiful. Steinhardt does not seem to exert the type of invigorating leadership that was once his forte. In Dvorak's late "String Quintet No.2 in E-flat Major," Opus 97 Steinhardt's playing lacked clarity and vigor (particularly in the outer movements). Yet the Larghetto (an evocative melody inspired by Dvorak's American sojourn) was beautifully played and shaped with almost spiritual eloquence. Laredo's rich, velvet sound (on the second viola part) was a real artistic plum. Peter Wiley's deep, resonant cello solo sang with rare beauty. The Allegro vivo had Czech spirit if less than precise ensemble. In the rarely heard "Terzetto in C Major," Opus 74 Dalley, Steinhardt, and Tree were rough hewn collaborators. The rustic Scherzo fared best - a mini Slavonic Dance played with vigor! The concluding Theme and Variations wanted for brilliance and energy.

The Guarneri Quartet's best offering was the rarely played "String Quartet No.11 in C Major," Opus 61. Despite an overly sober approach, the performance was often effective. Steinhardt seemed to play with greater control. The Poco adagio e molto cantabile had a wonderful singing line. The Allegro vivo Scherzo really danced with Czech spirit. The concluding Vivace was alive with spirited abandon. Dalley's strong second violin and Tree's firm viola tone were towers of strength. Most great quartets have undergone personnel changes over the decades. With the exception of cellist Peter Wiley (who joined the quartet four years ago) the Guarneri players have remained stable for an unusually long tenure. This may be a period of transition for the Guarneri. The elements that have made this group the Rolls Royce of Quartets remain intact. With some new leadership, the Guarneri can again become the aristocrat of string quartets and set new standards in the chamber music repertoire. 

As a prelude to the Dvorak Festival, the University of Miami's resident ensemble the Bergonzi String Quartet offered "An Evening in Prague" (on October 5). Dvorak's rarely heard "Quintet in G Major," Opus 77 (for 2 violins, viola, cello, and double bass) proved to be a real musical treat. This work finds Dvorak very much under the spell of Johannes Brahms. The expansive, long limned melody of the Poco Andante sings with Brahmsian warmth. The serenity of the opening Allegro con fuoco finds inspiration in the deep well of 19th century Austro-German musical traditions. Dvorak unfurls his Czech nationalism in the Scherzo: Allegro vivo. A lively finale caps a neglected masterwork. Joined by the excellent bass player Kevin Mauldin, the Bergonzi Quartet brought enthusiasm and vigor to this rare chamber score. The Poco andante was played with particular beauty and resonance. The melody seemed to soar from heaven. (The combination of Mauldin's deep bass and Ross Harbaugh's suave cello was wonderfully warm and sonorous.) Dvorak's most familiar chamber music score - the "String Quartet in F Major," Opus 96 ("American") did not fare as well. The outer movements were lethargic and dispirited. The Molto vivace was strangely flat. Glenn Basham's violin was often harsh and wiry. His intonation was frayed; ensemble was a sometime thing (to quote Ira Gershwin). Pamela McConnell's viola was not always audible. Violinist Scott Flavin's playing lacked a firm core of tonal resonance. Only cellist Harbaugh was a tower of strength with his lovely tone and strong phrasing. The Lento was shaped eloquently and lovingly. This movement made a strong impression despite the imperfections in musical execution. "Five Bagatelles" were irresistible rarities. Originally scored for two violins, cello, and harmonium, McConnell transcribed the keyboard part for accordion. The score opens with a sensuous, curving Czech melody that haunts the listener. The Bergonzi players brought loving ardor to these vignettes. McConnell's accordion was delightful. Wonderfully sweet confections in sympathetic performances!

Dvorak's most intimate, boldly creative thoughts find expression in his chamber music scores. Festival Miami offered a rare in depth exploration of these masterpieces. The Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson reached new heights in the marvelous "Dumky" Trio! A mini-festival to remember! 


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