Saturday, July 18, 2009

Music review: Schmitt suite, Septet violinist stand out at chamber fest

Composer Florent Schmitt (1870-1958).


By Greg Stepanich

A standout instrumental performance and two intriguing rediscoveries took pride of place Friday night as the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival opened its second series of concerts.

The finest of the two rediscoveries, the Suite en Rocaille, Op. 84, of French composer Florent Schmitt, reanimated a beautiful and unjustly forgotten work for an audience at the Persson Recital Hall at Palm Beach Atlantic University, while violinist Mei-Mei Luo infused the early Beethoven Septet with fire, wit and sparkle.

In addition to the Schmitt and the Beethoven, the members of the festival offered as their opening work the Octet (in E-flat, Op. 132) of Liechtenstein's own Joseph Rheinberger. Best known for his organ music (one of his organ concerti was played last season by Harold Pysher and the Palm Beach Symphony), Rheinberger was a fine Romantic composer whose work presents no difficulties for listeners.

This octet, for wind quartet, string trio and bass, is a well-made piece with attractive tunes, scored generally in instrumental blocks, with winds and strings moving together as units. The players made a good case for the octet, particularly in the somewhat Brahmsian slow movement, but there were minor ensemble problems here and there throughout, starting with the opening bars, and popping up during the rest of that first movement.

This was a small distraction from the overall impression, which was of a solid, elegant, enjoyable piece of chamber music, not especially memorable but full of pleasant ideas and skillfully deployed instrumental color.

Another work in E-flat major, the Septet, Op. 20, of Beethoven, closed the concert, and proved to be a star turn for Luo (at right), who handled the often-virtuosic violin part with confidence and elan, but without the overly aggressive style that has sometimes marred her work with other groups including the Delray String Quartet.

Here, for example, the celebrated third-movement minuet was a minuet only in name; Luo led it swiftly and smartly, like a busy march, and it worked admirably. The theme-and-variations fourth movement built in excitement as Luo and the other players reveled in Beethoven's prodigious invention, moving without a break into the scherzo, and capping off with a sometimes messy but exuberant finale.

This Septet is sometimes a chore to listen to because of its length and its general style, which leads some ensembles to play it with too much proto-Biedermeier complacency. But this was as fine a reading of the Septet as I have ever heard, and that's because Luo and the other musicians played it with brisk tempi and high spirits, which is exactly what early Beethoven -- the dazzling virtuoso, the rising man about town -- is all about.

But as good as the Septet was, and it was a wonderful way to end the concert, the most fulfilling musical moment came just before intermission with the Schmitt suite, written in 1934 for flute, violin, viola, cello and harp. This is a gem of French chamber music writing, beautifully composed and often achingly gorgeous, and one expects it will be on a future festival recording.

Flutist Karen Dixon demonstrated again, as she has every time I've heard her, the evenness of register and beauty of tone that make her flute playing so exceptional, while harpist Kay Kemper handled a widely varied part with apparent ease and impeccable taste. The three string players -- violinist Dina Kostic, violist Rene Reder and cellist Susan Moyer Bergeron -- rose to the occasion, and it was these five women who presented the finest ensemble playing of the concert.

Schmitt's work is of a piece with Ravel and Debussy, but he has a sharper melodic profile, a less ambiguous harmonic approach, and a Germanic affinity for main and contrasting themes. The result is music such as the third movement, where the flute plays a restless little motif-melody at the very bottom of its range and the strings answer with passages of tense, radiant melancholy; there's no question about where the music is going or the message it's trying to convey.

As with other music in the French tradition, shade and color are critical, and Schmitt shares the exacting ear of his contemporaries, making every chord and utterance mean something more than sonic wallpaper. The five musicians were fully alive to this kind of writing, and in moments such as the high-flying flute and string scales of the finale, which differed so strongly from the mood and layout of second, the great dramatic scope Schmitt found in this modest quintet combination was made wonderfully apparent.

This program, the second concert of the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival's four concert-series, will be repeated tonight at the Eissey Campus Theatre at Palm Beach Community College in Palm Beach Gardens, and again Sunday afternoon at the Crest Theatre in Delray Beach's Old School Square. Tonight's concert begins at 8 p.m., and Sunday's starts at 2 p.m. Tickets: $21. Call 800-330-6874 or visit www.pbcmf.org.

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