Monday, August 20, 2012

Review: Richmond Chamber Players

Aug. 19, Bon Air Presbyterian Church

The Hungarian Ernő Dohnányi is one of those composers who fell through the cracks. A romantic whose life and career coincided with the rise of modernism, Dohnányi is typically cast as the
backward-looking contemporary of Bela Bartók and Zoltan Kodály; while they blazed new harmonic and stylistic trails and established a Hungarian musical identity, Dohnányi recycled the Germanic idioms of Brahms and Wagner (and was known for most of his life by the German version of his name, Ernst von Dohnányi).

The Richmond Chamber Players put Dohnányi’s reputation to the test by reviving one of his most substantial works, the Sextet (1935) for piano, strings and winds. Sure enough, the piece echoes earlier times – who would guess that it’s contemporaneous with Berg’s Violin Concerto and Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony? – and speaks in a decidedly Teutonic accent when, as in its first movement, it aspires to “serious” expression and form. A less dated Dohnányi emerges in the piece’s later and lighter movements, especially the percolating finale, which evoke the phrasing and rhythms of folk and popular music.

In this performance, pianist John Walter, violinist Susy Yim, violist Stephen Schmidt, cellist Neal Cary, clarinetist David Niethamer and French horn player James Ferree nicely conveyed the Brahmsian weight of the first movement and the Wagnerian stream-of-melodic-consciousness of the intermezzo. Ferree, solo and in combination with Niethamer and Walter, tonally “bronzed” these sections. Walter and the string players were the animators and colorists of the brief allegro con sentimento third movement and finale. It was a persuasive reading of a not entirely persuasive work.

Late-late-romantics who wrote memorable tunes – Rachmaninoff, Puccini, Sibelius, Richard Strauss, Erich Korngold – thrived. Those less gifted in spinning melody, like Dohnányi, have sunk into obscurity.

This third program of the Chamber Players’ Interlude 2012 concerts opened with two sharply contrasting sets of miniatures: Schumann’s “Three Romances,” Op. 94, in the version for oboe and piano, and Karel Husa’s “Évocations de Slovaquie” for clarinet, viola and piano.

Oboist Gustav Highstein, with discreet but expressive and spontaneous-sounding support from pianist Walter, played up the yearning qualities of the Schumann romances in his phrasing, and their bittersweet character in his lyrical but focused tone.

Clarinetist Niethamer was the leading voice in the Husa set, from the lengthy soliloquy launching “The Mountains” to the almost squealing frenzy of the concluding dance. Violist Schmidt got in some enticingly colorful and crunchy licks in the Husa.

The Richmond Chamber Players’ Interlude 2012 series concludes with a program of Mozart, Copland, Rick Sowash and William Grant Still at 3 p.m. Aug. 26 at Bon Air Presbyterian Church, 9201 W. Huguenot Road. Tickets: $18. Details: (804) 272-7514.