Thursday, December 11, 2008

Review: Richmond Festival of Music

Dec. 11, Wilton House Museum

Cellist James Wilson, violinist Erin Keefe, violinist-violist Catherine Cho and a couple of dozen patrons of Wilson’s Richmond Festival of Music fit themselves into the Upper Passage (second-floor hallway) of Wilton, an 18th-century mansion in Richmond’s West End, for the annual holiday "Classics by Candlelight" recital presented by the festival's parent organization, the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia.

Listeners might have imagined they were seated inside Wilson’s cello, such was the volume and presence of a program of string trios by Beethoven, Schubert, Borodin and Carl Reinecke. The European salons in which these pieces were originally played were two or three times larger than this space, and early 19th-century fiddles (and fiddlers) didn’t project as powerfully as modern ones.

Performing under a microscope, so to speak, the threesome played with remarkable refinement – Cho’s viola and Wilson’s cello were so sonically and tonally integrated they sounded like a single instrument – and with consistently well-judged instrumental balances.

The program's showpiece was Beethoven’s Trio in G major, Op. 9, No. 1, for violin, viola and cello, a Haydnesque vehicle for sturdy tunes and well-schooled counterpoint that ends in a thrillingly speedy presto movement. Schubert’s Trio in B flat major, D. 471, a single allegro movement, also recalls classical style, but with harmonic touches of the mature composer. Violinist Keefe, violist Cho and cellist Wilson played both with ears attuned to the pieces’ transitional, classical-romantic characters.

Cho switched to violin for Borodin’s "Trio on a Russian Theme," a miniature rhapsody on a soulful melody, played with unalloyed but unindulgent romantic spirit.

Not surprisingly, the problem child of the evening was the Trio in C minor, Op. 249, for violin, viola and cello by Reinecke, a contemporary of Brahms and friend of Robert and Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt. In these tight quarters, Reinecke’s plummy late-romantic score was overwhelming except in its quietest passages, which are infrequent. Humidity from a day-long downpour led to tuning problems, which made the piece’s textures denser and its chromatic harmonies unintentionally dissonant.

Wilson, Keefe and Cho will repeat the "Classics by Candlelight" program at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 13 at Wilton House Museum, 215 S. Wilton Road. Tickets: $50. They will be joined by flutist Mary Boodell for a recital at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 12 at Bon Air Presbyterian Church, 9201 W. Huguenot Road. Tickets: $25. Details: (804) 519-2098;