Saturday, April 25, 2009

Review: Richmond Festival of Music

April 24, Bon Air Presbyterian Church

The Richmond Festival of Music’s week-long survey of music of the 18th century neared its conclusion, curiously, not far from where it began – in rustic sound effects and evocations of the dance.

The front end of this was no particular surprise – Vivaldi concertos and Telemann suites are known for representational effects and dance rhythms. These were sublimated by most end-of-the-century classicists – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven – but definitely not by Luigi Boccherini in his Quintet in C major, known as "Night Sounds of Madrid."

Cellist James Wilson, the festival’s artistic director, joined the Escher String Quartet in the Boccherini, and provided a point-by-point guide to the composer’s aural streetscape in program notes. The work, whose march finale became one of the greatest hits of the late 18th century, received an outsized, even boisterous, reading from the five fiddlers. Impersonations of tolling bells by a violin and of a guitar by two cellos were two among many vividly rendered effects.

Pianist Carsten Schmidt and the Escher opened the festival’s final program with a chamber version of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 11 in F major, K. 413. The first movement was unruly and imbalanced; the performance gelled in a sensitive reading of the central larghetto and achieved some real sparkle in the finale.

The Escher – violinists Adam Barnett-Hart and Wu Jie, violist Pierre Lapointe and cellist Andrew Janss – played up to their billing as one of the country’s premiere young string ensembles in a concluding reading of Beethoven’s Quartet in A major, Op. 18, No. 5. The leader, Bennett-Hart, is an extroverted player who doesn’t skimp on big, vibrato-laden tone, and his colleagues generally follow suit, although Lapointe and, occasionally, Janss inject more fibrous playing into the mix.

The ensemble sounded enormous from 15 feet away, the vantage from which most of this audience heard it; clearly, these players aim to fill bigger halls with sound. In stylistic inclination, and in tone and projection, the Escher recalls the Guarneri Quartet in its prime.

In a Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia special event, cellist James Wilson will play two of Bach’s solo suites in a free concert at 7:30 p.m. April 28 at the Hermitage at Cedarfield, 2300 Cedarfield Parkway in Richmond. Details: (804) 519-2098;