Monday, August 25, 2014

Review: Richmond Chamber Players

Aug. 24, Bon Air Presbyterian Church

In “A Nightmare Before Halloween,” the final program of their 2014 Interlude series, the Richmond Chamber Players departed from their norm in several respects. One was the rare addition of a harpist, Richmond Symphony principal Lynette Wardle, to the proceedings. Another was the insertion of recitations, by John Winn, better-known as a jazz reed player and teacher, before a couple of selections.

The more conventional spoken introduction was an abridgement of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” before André Caplet’s “Conte fantastique,” a 1919 work for harp and string quartet that depicts Poe’s story in sound.

Far less expected – out of the blue, really – was a reading of Macbeth’s soliloquy on the death of Lady Macbeth (“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow/Creeps in this petty pace from day to day”) from Act 5 of Shakespeare’s “Scottish play,” delivered before the central largo of Beethoven’s Piano Trio in D major, Op. 70, No. 1, known as the “Ghost” Trio.

Whyfor? Cellist Neal Cary recounted a tale told by Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny, that the trio’s slow movement was drawn from a sketch for an opera on “Macbeth,” which Beethoven never developed. (Perhaps one of the great “ones that got away” of classical music. Or maybe not: Other than Verdi’s “Otello,” operatic treatments of Shakespearian tragedies haven’t lived up to the originals; and, as the laborious evolution of “Fidelio” reminds us, opera didn’t come naturally to Beethoven.)

“Conte fantastique,” a more or less literal sonic echo of Poe’s narrative, is full of chilling sound effects, borrowed from quite liberally by composers of horror-movie scores, who evidently know this piece better than the rest of us. Harpist Wardle and the quartet of violinists Alana Carithers and Susy Yim, violist Stephen Schmidt and cellist Cary italicized those chills, giving special emphasis to the spooky combination of harp and low-register cello tones.

Their vivid rendering of the score’s impressionistic effects were a reminder of Caplet’s close association with Claude Debussy (Caplet’s orchestrations of “Clair de lune” and “The Children’s Corner” are better-known than his own works.)

Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio, played by Carithers (substituting on short notice for an indisposed Catherine Cary), Cary and pianist John Walter, received a stylish reading, but one that needed more intensity and tension, especially in its “Macbeth” movement.

Yim, accompanied by Walter, took on the daunting task of playing Giuseppe Tartini’s Violin Sonata in G minor, the (in)famous “Devil’s Trill,” a showpiece for virtuoso fiddlers for nearly 300 years. Yim acquitted herself more than respectably in this rendition, taking a brisk but not lickety-split pace, trilling and double-stopping ably, utilizing the tonal resources of a modern violin and wisely not trying to play in “historically informed” style.

Wardle and the string quartet preceded the Caplet with a performance of Liszt’s “At the Grave of Richard Wagner,” a brief elegy that at its best evokes Wagner’s last opera, “Parsifal.”