Monday, April 19, 2010

Review: Richmond Festival of Music

April 18, First Unitarian Universalist Church

After seasons devoted to Americana and the baroque, James Wilson’s Richmond Festival of Music returns this year to the heart of standard chamber repertory, focusing on works of Brahms and Dvořák – but, as usual, with some offbeat addenda.

The opening program featured Brahms’ Piano Trio in C major, Op. 87, and Dvořák’s Piano Quartet in E flat major, Op. 87, both dating from the 1880s, when Brahms was at the peak of his creative power and Dvořák was perfecting his melding of Czech folk idioms with mainstream romanticism.

Alongside those works, there were two rarities: "Variations on a Theme of Brahms" for piano four-hands by the composer’s protégé, Heinrich von Herzogenberg, played by Carsten Schmidt and Gabriel Dobner; and "Southland Sketches" by Henry Thacker Burleigh, who assisted Dvořák during his years in America and introduced him to African-American song, played by violinist Erin Keefe with Dobner on piano.

The Brahms trio, played by Schmidt, violinist Diane Pascal and Wilson on cello, and the Dvořák quartet, played by Dobner, Pascal, Wilson and Keefe on viola, were full immersions in full-bodied romantic sonority – the result, in more or less equal parts, of the musicians’ assertively luxuriant tone projection and of the close perspective and resonance of the space in which they were playing.

The sound bordered on being too much of a good thing – as if listeners were positioned inside the box of a fiddle or under the lid of the piano. At times, accents and internal figures were swamped in the wash of rich tone. More than compensating for that was the enveloping sound of solo playing, as Keefe produced in her subtle violin phrasing in the Burleigh and as Wilson delivered in his voluptuous reading of the solo-cello song opening the lento movement of the Dvořák, and numerous highlights of subtler, softer ensemble playing.

The most effective exploitation of First Unitarian’s acoustics came in Keefe’s and Dobner’s soulful but not soupy treatment of Burleigh's nostalgic lyricism; and in the andante of the Brahms trio, as Pascal and Wilson underlined the sighing effects of their string lines, with sensitive support from Schmidt.

The Icelandic volcano’s disruption of air travel has hit this festival, as it has many other musical events. Lily Francis, who was to play viola in performances this week, is grounded in Sweden. She will be replaced on April 20 by Will Frampton and on April 22 by Carmit Zori.

The Richmond Festival of Music continues with concerts at 7:30 p.m. April 20 and 22 at First Unitarian Universalist Church, 1000 Blanton Ave. at the Carillon. Tickets: $25. Details: (804) 519-2098;