Thursday, May 6, 2010

Review: Kavafian-Schub-Shifrin Trio

May 5, Virginia Commonwealth University

Violinist Ani Kavafian, pianist André-Michel Schub and clarinetist David Shifrin, who form the most stellar trio of their instruments on the U.S. touring circuit, wrapped up the current season of VCU’s Rennolds Chamber Concerts with a seasonably light-textured, virtuosically rendered sampler of French and French-accented chamber music.

Kavafian, who has had a long career as a solo violinist, displayed her rich, robust tone and technical mastery in Saint-Saëns’ Sonata in D minor, Op. 75, a piece that begins with late-romantic portent but then settles into the tunefulness garnished with playfulness that is more characteristic of the French composer. Kavafian and Schub emphasized the Brahmsian intensity of the opening movement and the brilliant interplay of the subsequent adagio. The violinist nicely balanced lyricism and tonal-technical brilliance in the big tune of the adagio and its near-reprise in the sonata’s finale.

Shifrin’s showcase was Poulenc’s Sonata for clarinet and piano (1962), the last work completed by the composer and one of the most sophisticated examples of his melding of neoclassical form, vernacular style and the transparent texture and deceptive simplicity that one hears in Mozart. The sonata’s outer movements jangle to energetic phrases (or phraselets) and abrupt silences, which Shifrin and Schub played as if engaged in animated, fragmentary conversation. In the central romanza, which sounds like Schubert crossbred with torch song, the clarinetist played its long phrases soulfully but with wry or ironic undertones.

Stravinsky’s suite from "L’histoire du soldat" ("The Soldier’s Tale") displayed the three musicians’ mettle as ensemble players – especially Kavafian’s and Shifrin’s abilities to play assertively without stepping on each other’s lines – and gave Schub his most substantial part to play in the program. (The piano is the default orchestra in this trio arrangement of Stravinsky’s original septet orchestration.) Kavafian was notably effective in conveying the obsessively dutiful character of the chugging, double-stopped violin motif that runs through the piece. The ensemble played the sequence of tango, waltz and ragtime dance with droll affect.

The program opened with another mini-orchestration, Milhaud’s Suite, Op. 157b, for violin, clarinet and piano, a (usually) concise example of this composer’s penchant for spinning attractive melodies atop chunky chords at perkily energized tempos. In the "Jeu" ("Play") movement, Kavafian and Shifrin carried on a rather flirtatious conversation (with the piano as silent chaperone).