Monday, August 11, 2014

Review: Richmond Chamber Players

Aug. 10, Bon Air Presbyterian Church

Want to make even a sophisticated music lover flunk a blindfold test? Play Giuseppe Verdi’s String Quartet in E minor, and ask the identity of the composer. Subjected to the test myself, I would probably guess Bedrich Smetana or some more obscure mid- to late-romantic Slav. The piece bears little or no resemblance to the operatic Verdi, although several of its themes were lifted from his operas.

The quartet, written in 1872 as Verdi was marooned in a Naples hotel while rehearsals for “Aïda” were delayed by a singer’s illness, is the only significant instrumental work by the composer to have survived; but it remained a rarity until last year’s Verdi bicentennial. I’ve heard it played no less than three times in the past 18 months.

The latest performance, by violinists Catherine Cary and Susy Yim, violist Stephen Schmidt and cellist Neal Cary in the Richmond Chamber Players’ second Interlude series concert of this season, was in some ways the most convincing. The ensemble sounded warm and highly expressive – cellist Cary especially so in his solo in the trio of the third movement; and treated the most impressive part of the piece, the fugal scherzo opening the final movement, to a detailed and finely balanced reading.

Similar qualities came through in the “Rustiques” Wind Trio by Joseph Canteloube, the French composer best-known as the arranger-orchestrator of “Songs of the Auvergne.” Like the song cycle, the trio is rooted in French folk music; but its more animated sections recall in insouciant neo-classical Parisian style of Les Six in the 1920s.

Oboist Gustav Highstein, clarinetist Jared Davis and bassoonist Michael Gordon played the Canteloube, which Davis termed a “French morsel,” with affectionate treatment of its lyrical themes – Gordon melodized in the central rêverie to fine effect – and a gratifying tartness in its more urbane, modernist harmonies.

Davis, the new principal clarinetist of the Richmond Symphony, also was featured in an Adagio in D flat major for clarinet and string quartet that has been credited to the young Richard Wagner, but was probably the work of Heinrich Baermann, an influential German clarinetist of the early 19th century. The clarinetist treated this short air to a mellow reading of great tonal refinement.

Cellist Cary and pianist John Walter opened the program with its only even vaguely familiar entry, the “Twelve Variations on ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ from Mozart’s ‘Die Zauberflöte’ ” by the young Beethoven. The piano is the dominant voice of the duo in most of the variations, and Walter played with a tone of animated whimsy well-suited to Papageno, the love-struck comic character who sings the aria in “The Magic Flute.” Cary seconded Walter stylistically in his more limited contributions to the set.

The Richmond Chamber Players’ Interlude series continues with concerts at 3 p.m. Aug. 17 and 24 at Bon Air Presbyterian Church, 9201 W. Huguenot Road. Tickets: 20. Details: (804) 217-7205;