Thursday, March 19, 2009

Music review: Salzburg Chamber Soloists astonish at Four Arts

The Salzburg Chamber Soloists.

By Greg Stepanich

PALM BEACH -- Somewhere in between the middle of a Haydn symphony and the first of what turned out to be six tangos by Astor Piazzolla, the Salzburg Chamber Soloists sailed Wednesday night from the realms of the exceptional into the extraordinary.

In a concert at the Society of the Four Arts that was as stunning for its perfection in detail as it was its showmanship, this band of 16 to 20 players mounted a brilliant exhibition of music that made each piece sound like a masterwork whose very next phrase would prove even more magical than the one before.

The Austrian group's leader, the Brazilian-born violinist Lavard Skou-Larsen, possesses a quality of leadership that approaches genius; he has the ability to inspire a group of tremendously gifted people to exceed themselves, undoubtedly in part because he is such a good player himself.

The Chamber Soloists is primarily a string orchestra and is similar to the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in that it plays without a conductor. But it is Skou-Larsen who always is leading, walking into the half-circle space around which the musicians sat, playing his violin, or holding up his bow with a flourish at the climax of a bravura conclusion to find it sharing the air with a dozen or so other bows, also suspended briefly above.

One of the more remarkable readings of the night came with the Symphony No. 49 (in F minor, La Passione), written when Haydn was riding the first wave of intellectual and cultural ferment in Europe that would flower so extravagantly into Romanticism. Perhaps in keeping with that idea of subterranean rumbling, the Soloists played this dark, dramatic symphony with great force, hitting the sforzandos like sucker punches and driving home the fast sections with a bristling kind of fury.

But for every hammerblow there was something delicate, such as the trio section of the Minuet, with lovely playing in oboes and horns, or something subtle, like the main theme of the concluding Presto, played here with a sense of drive and expectation that made it sound nervous and agitated, when it could have justifiably been played in a much heavier manner. Throughout this performance, there was ample opportunity to enjoy the sheer depth and richness of the sound these musicians produced, and all of it with little or no vibrato, in accord with historic performance practice.

Listeners unfamiliar with Haydn's Sturm und Drang period would have found the symphony something of a revelation, and that same word is useful for the first work on the program, the ninth and final Bachianas Brasilieras of Heitor Villa-Lobos.

Starting with a simple scalar theme and then unfolding into a vigorous fugue. The prelude here was notable for the smoothness of the playing, every edge rounded off and each phrase milked for maximum expression; the fugue stood out for the Soloists' precision and rhythmic vitality, all of it culminating in a vibrant interpretation of a well-crafted, too-little-heard work.

Skou-Larsen, who sat in the concertmaster's chair all night, gave it up for the viola in the piece that followed, the Sinfonia Concertante (in E-flat, K. 364) of Mozart. He shared the stage with a young violinist named Natalia Ladstaetter, who played with a strong, penetrating tone that contrasted well with the darker sound of Skou-Larsen’s viola.

The emphasis here again was on youthfulness and vigor, and one in which the music sounded alive and almost freshly composed. The two soloists brought excellent technical accomplishment -- intonation, accuracy (even when Ladstaetter had to scale the highest registers), phrasing -- and put it to the service of a marvelously vibrant rendition of the concerto, including a first-movement cadenza in which the soloists played with the cohesion and sheer joy of a coloratura duo showing off.

In the moodily beautiful second movement, both soloists played with a wonderfully clear sound that lent the music a kind of nobility that made it even lovelier than it already was, and if Skou-Larsen was rushing things a couple times in his solo passages during the marvelously energetic finale, it certainly fit the joyous mood of this terrific performance.

The concert closed after the Haydn with five scheduled tangos by Piazzolla, and a sixth was added as an encore. The first of these, Buenos Aires Hora Cero, starts with the solo violin scraping on the other side of the bridge to make a grating, metallic sound, and Skou-Larsen indulged his penchant for theater as he played it, hunched over in his chair and then wandering the stage giving the sounds to the other players.

The interest in these high-grade salon pieces is in their colorful rhythms, their rapidly shifting moods, and their often cornball melodic passages. But these tangos (including Adios, Nonino, Close Your Eyes, La Muerte del Angel, Chante e Fugue, and the closing Libertango) almost had the majesty of Beethoven, so intensely, richly and perfectly were they played.

Exciting dance beats in the cellos; evocative solos by violin, viola, and cello; superbly executed mass glissandi; over-the-top pop melodies: All these were in this Piazzolla set in abundance, and it made a magnificent ending to a concert in which an abundance of talent was matched with an abundance of risk-taking and canny programming.

The Salzburg Chamber Soloists possess the closest thing to the emergent fire of a great rock band just hitting its stride that I have ever seen in a classical music concert, and its performance Wednesday will long be an evening to remember.

No comments: