Monday, August 20, 2007

Review: Richmond Chamber Players

Aug. 19, Bon Air Presbyterian Church

Here’s a good threshold test of cultural sophistication: Does your town have musicians capable of playing, and an audience capable of absorbing, Olivier Messiaen’s "Quartet for the End of Time?"

The quartet, introduced by Messiaen and fellow prisoners of war in a German internment camp in 1941, stands alongside Igor Stravinsky’s "The Rite of Spring" among the epochal works of 20th-century music, observed John Walter, the pianist and director of the Richmond Chamber Players, before he performed the work with clarinetist David Niethamer, violinist Catherine Cary and cellist Neal Cary.

Nearly a lifetime after its composition, the piece still presents great demands on performers and listeners. It is long and technically challenging, veering between the visceral and the ethereal in expression, with long stretches of musical sound in a seeming state of suspension. Although a story line – the Apocalypse as recounted in the Revelation of St. John – offers some clarification of its sonic mysteries, Messiaen's work is much more mystical contemplation than sonic dramatization.

This ensemble’s account of the quartet was measured and straightforward, emphasizing its rarified tonality and extremes of instrumental register and expression. Walter was especially vivid in the "blocks of purple fury" (Messiaen’s words) representing the angelic announcement of the end of time; Niethamer and the Carys were more engaged in the subtleties of tone production and phrasing of their parts. The audience took it in with much the same "rapt silence" that Messiaen noted after the premiere.

The Messiaen was preceded by another major chamber work of the mid-20th century, Béla Bartók’s "Contrasts," written in 1938 for violinist Joseph Szigeti and clarinetist Benny Goodman, and one of the earliest works of the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera, "Impresiones de la Puna" (1934).

Pianist Walter, clarinetist Niethamer and violinist Susy Yim smoothed the angularity of Bartók’s phrases and deadpanned much of his humor in the opening "Recruiting Dance," and sounded more languid than relaxed in "Relaxation." The fiery exchanges between violin and clarinet, and a brilliant violin cadenza by Yim, in the concluding "Fast Dance" highlighted the performance.

Boodell and the string players made cheerful, colorful work of the Ginastera.

The Richmond Chamber Players’ Interlude series concludes with a program of Roussel, Stravinsky and Bartók at 3 p.m. Aug. 26 at Bon Air Presbyterian Church, 9201 W. Huguenot Road. Tickets: $16. Information: (804) 340-1405 (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts events desk).