Saturday, February 12, 2011

Music roundup: A fine young violist, two admirable quartets

Peijun Xu.
(Photo by Greg Stepanich)

Peijun Xu‭ (‬Feb.‭ ‬10,‭ ‬Steinway Gallery,‭ ‬Boca Raton‭)

If the concertgoing world doesn‭’‬t fully appreciate the variety that a viola can bring to a recital,‭ ‬that won‭’‬t be the fault of Peijun Xu.

The Shanghai-born musician performed two local recitals this week for the Kronberg Academy,‭ ‬an organization based in that German town near Frankfurt‭ (‬the city that Xu now calls home‭) ‬that helps accomplished violinists,‭ ‬violists and cellists build viable concert careers.‭ ‬The Kronberg has been raising money in Palm Beach County for its programs‭ ‬since August‭ ‬2009.

Xu played recitals at Palm Beach Atlantic University‭’‬s Persson Hall on Wednesday night,‭ ‬and at the Boca Steinway Gallery on Thursday night.‭ ‬Her recital at the gallery was sparsely attended,‭ ‬but she and her accompanist,‭ ‬Spanish pianist José Menor,‭ ‬stinted not a bit,‭ ‬and the result was a rewarding evening of fine music,‭ ‬beautifully played.‭

The viola‭’‬s special sound can be tricky to realize,‭ ‬but Xu has a wide variety of qualities that she brings to the instrument,‭ ‬from a chocolaty darkness in the lowest registers to a breathy lightness that has a plusher,‭ ‬fatter sound than the same kind of passage on the violin.‭ ‬A good example of this came in the second work on her program,‭ ‬the Viola da Gamba Sonata No.‭ ‬3‭ (‬in‭ ‬G minor,‭ ‬BWV‭ ‬1029‭) ‬of J.S.‭ ‬Bach.‭ ‬In the first two movements,‭ ‬her tone was focused and pure,‭ ‬and in the third the repeated notes of the main theme had a strong sense of lift that moved the music along smartly.

She has a good sense of Baroque style,‭ ‬and she‭ ‬and Menor worked very well together,‭ ‬smiling at each other throughout,‭ ‬and finishing phrases such as the trill suffixes in the second movement of the Bach with precision togetherness.

The Brahms Viola Sonata No.‭ ‬2‭ (‬in E-flat,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬120,‭ ‬No.‭ ‬2‭)‬,‭ ‬originally for clarinet,‭ ‬also is a staple for violists,‭ ‬and indeed the music works well for the instrument.‭ ‬Here,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬Xu‭’‬s sound had purity and nobility from the first bars,‭ ‬and she handled the more virtuosic elements of Brahms‭’‬ late writing deftly.‭ ‬She demonstrated‭ ‬as well a welcome intensity in the minor-key sweep of the second movement,‭ ‬and the‭ ‬32nd-note variation in the third movement had a lovely delicacy.

The second half of the recital showed more of the Romantic side of Xu‭’‬s art,‭ ‬beginning with the two‭ ‬Chansons‭ ‬(Op.‭ ‬15‭) ‬of Edward Elgar.‭ ‬For both of these pieces,‭ ‬Xu offered a bigger,‭ ‬more expansive sound,‭ ‬as if she were more relaxed,‭ ‬and the‭ ‬Chanson de Nuit,‭ ‬which she played second,‭ ‬benefited much from her digging more deeply into the strings.‭ ‬Xu is a highly physical player as well,‭ ‬swaying and leaning as she performs,‭ ‬often with her eyes closed tightly.

Her immersion in the music continued with a Chopin set:‭ ‬the posthumous C-sharp minor Nocturne‭ (‬arranged by Yehudi Menuhin and Xu herself‭)‬,‭ ‬and the celebrated E-flat Nocturne,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬9,‭ ‬No.‭ ‬2,‭ ‬in an arrangement by Pablo de Sarasate.‭ ‬The tiny audience adored these intense readings,‭ ‬especially the E-flat,‭ ‬which could have used a bit more breadth in the cadenza before going to the brief coda.

The Paganini‭ ‬La Campanella‭ (‬the Rondo movement from his Concerto No.‭ ‬2‭ ‬in B minor,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬7‭) ‬that followed came off with great gusto and admirable accuracy,‭ ‬and demonstrated Xu‭’‬s considerable finger technique as well as the agility of her bow arm.‭ ‬The recital closed with a William Primrose arrangement of Astor Piazzolla‭’‬s‭ ‬Le Grand Tango,‭ ‬which she played with power and verve,‭ ‬swinging into the music with obvious enjoyment.

For an encore,‭ ‬Xu paid homage to her homeland with‭ ‬Fisherman‭’‬s Serenade,‭ ‬a Romantic-style arrangement by Li Guoquan of a Chinese folksong,‭ ‬which she played prettily.

After the concert,‭ ‬Xu talked about her concert career,‭ ‬which has included much playing of the viola concertos of Walton,‭ ‬Hindemith and Penderecki.‭ ‬Just‭ ‬25,‭ ‬she has a fine career as a violist ahead of her,‭ ‬with the proviso that repertory for this beautiful instrument is always something of a challenge.

And so,‭ ‬this call to composers:‭ ‬Write some music for Peijun Xu.‭ ‬You won‭’‬t be sorry.‭ ‬– Greg Stepanich

Next up in the Kronberg Academy recital series is the Japanese cellist Dai Miyata,‭ ‬whom Menor also will accompany.‭ ‬Miyata‭’‬s recital is set for‭ ‬7‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Tuesday,‭ ‬March‭ ‬8,‭ ‬at the Boca Steinway Gallery.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬283-1815‭ ‬for more information,‭ ‬or visit‭ ‬


The Amernet String Quartet.

Amernet‭ ‬String‭ ‬Quartet‭ (‬Feb.‭ ‬2,‭ ‬Stage West,‭ ‬Duncan Theatre,‭ ‬Lake Worth‭)

At‭ ‬the rear of the Duncan Theatre,‭ ‬there‭’‬s a gem of a space‭ ‬called Stage West,‭ ‬and on Feb.‭ ‬2,‭ ‬that‭’‬s where the exceptional Amernet String Quartet performed works from the last three centuries to a full house.

First came the Haydn Quartet No.‭ ‬67‭ (‬in F,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬77,‭ ‬No.‭ ‬2‭)‬,‭ ‬written‭ ‬in‭ ‬1799.‭ ‬Here was‭
‬the ultimate in a form thought to have been invented by Papa Haydn and improved upon by others,‭ ‬notably Mozart,‭ ‬who‭ ‬dedicated six such works to the master.‭

The Haydn quartet,‭ ‬which was the last one he completed,‭ ‬opens with‭ ‬a strong cello voice in the first movement,‭ ‬beautifully played here by‭ ‬Jason Calloway.‭ ‬The Menuetto of the second movement opens with a throbbing‭ ‬,‭ ‬surging melody that is passed around each instrument.‭ ‬Then cello and viola engage in a duet with a very catchy tune,‭ ‬picked up by the first and second violins,‭ ‬who finish it.‭

An amusing two-note ‭ ‬harmony,‭ ‬repeated once,‭ ‬ends the movement.‭ ‬The blend and balance‭ ‬of the third movement,‭ ‬marked Andante,‭ ‬was superb,‭ ‬and all four players gave of their best as they moved into the Finale with a forceful attack.‭ ‬The melody skipped along endlessly,‭ ‬closing with an unexpected suddenness.‭ ‬A fine performance,‭ ‬and one‭ ‬that left‭ ‬the audience in a good frame of mind.‭

‬The next piece on the program was six short adaptations of‭ ‬preludes from‭ ‬Shostakovich‭’‬s‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬34‭ ‬set for piano.‭ ‬These were transcribed by Yuri Vitenson,‭ ‬father to the Amernet‭’‬s‭ ‬principal violinist,‭ ‬Misha Vitenson,‭ ‬at the urging of his mother.‭ ‬Yuri Vitenson thought‭ ‬long and hard about adapting these piano works and decided that a string quartet would suit best.‭ ‬All are in the original key,‭ ‬and Misha Vitenson led his three colleagues with‭ ‬dynamism and incredibly strong‭ ‬expressive playing.‭

For me,‭ ‬it was over too quickly,‭ ‬and I wonder whether the elder Vitenson would consider doing all the other Shostakovich preludes in the set.‭ ‬They have great drama,‭ ‬and they are representative of many trends‭ ‬in‭ ‬20th-century music.‭

The lone String Quartet of Claude Debussy,‭ ‬written in‭ ‬1893,‭ ‬opened up the floodgates for the next‭ ‬100‭ ‬years in terms of a new approach in composing for the string quartet,‭ ‬primarily through exoticism.‭ “‬We get to pull our instruments apart in‭ ‬this,‭”‬ Callaway told the audience with a grin.

The first movement opens with what sounds like an express train racing down the rails.‭ ‬It builds and builds until it stops,‭ ‬and one feels‭ ‬as if one has fallen off a cliff.‭ ‬Ending with rising crescendos,‭ ‬the music fades to nothingness.‭ ‬Plucked strings begin the second movement with tuneful melodies rising and falling until they return to plucked strings of the opening.

A soft,‭ ‬elegiac mood starts the third movement,‭ ‬which was led by‭ ‬violist‭ ‬Michael Klotz,‭ ‬who played exquisitely,‭ ‬producing‭ ‬some lovely romantic‭ ‬sounds,‭ ‬warm with expressiveness.‭ ‬At the last,‭ ‬the‭ ‬express train returns with edge-of-the-seat sounds reminiscent of music in a film noir.‭ ‬A real sense of urgency distinguishes itself in this movement,‭ ‬which has a triumphant ending.‭ ‬Rapturous applause greeted the magnificence of the Amernet‭’‬s interpretation,‭ ‬and deservedly so.‭

‬I have heard many string quartet groups over the years,‭ ‬few as business-like or intense as these four talented musicians.‭ ‬No histrionics attend their playing like some I‭’‬ve encountered.‭ ‬Their sound ‭ ‬has a strength and vibrancy unique to them,‭ ‬and it was a rewarding experience to see and hear such fine artists at the top of their game.‭ ‬– Rex Hearn


The Fry Street Quartet.
(Photo by Mary Kay Gaydos Gabriel)

Fry Street Quartet‭ (‬Jan.‭ ‬30,‭ ‬Society of the Four Arts,‭ ‬Palm Beach‭)

Performing one of the last extraordinary string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven is always a special event,‭ ‬but it doesn‭’‬t hurt to explain to an audience just why that is.

Rebecca McFaul,‭ ‬the second violinist of the Fry Street Quartet,‭ ‬took her audience at the Four Arts on Jan.‭ ‬30‭ ‬carefully through the‭ ‬seven movements of the C-sharp minor quartet‭ (‬Op.‭ ‬131‭)‬,‭ ‬demonstrating along with her colleagues various sections of the work and generally demystifying it.‭ ‬It was carefully done,‭ ‬and no doubt much appreciated,‭ ‬though the audience was already on the quartet‭’‬s side before it began to play.

The Fry Street is a‭ ‬fine professional quartet,‭ ‬based now at Utah State University,‭ ‬and also a veteran of the‭ ‬Beethoven cycle,‭ ‬and the foursome offered selections from both ends of it at the concert.‭ ‬Opening the afternoon was the very first quartet‭ (‬in F,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬18.‭ ‬No.‭ ‬1‭)‬,‭ ‬and the Fry Street delivered a masterful performance of this early work.

The first movement had plenty of tightly coiled energy while being light on its feet‭; ‬Beethoven‭’‬s motifs climbed and yearned like they should,‭ ‬but without overdoing it.‭ ‬First violinist William Fedkenheuer‭ ‬played with intensity and feeling in the long-breathed second movement,‭ ‬but the deliberate ritards at the ends of his solo figurations before leading back into the tuttis were somewhat on the stagey side.

The trio of the third movement had a good sense of shock and vigor,‭ ‬and the easy briskness of the finale was a good compensation for slight‭ ‬ensemble miscues here and there in the three-note figure that answers the triplet runs in the main theme.‭ ‬All in all,‭ ‬a strong performance,‭ ‬and one with an appropriate early-wine style.

Samuel Barber‭’‬s only String Quartet‭ (‬in B minor,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬11‭) ‬is too rarely heard in its original form,‭ ‬though the slow movement is known around the world as the‭ ‬Adagio for Strings.‭ ‬The Fry Street‭’‬s reading of the Barber was much like its early Beethoven in that it was clean,‭ ‬thoroughly prepared,‭ ‬and well-executed.‭

The first and third movements were suitably peppery,‭ ‬and the restraint with which the quartet played the celebrated Adagio made it more affecting.

The Op.‭ ‬131,‭ ‬which occupied the second half,‭ ‬requires a steady narrative line as well as strong musical chops,‭ ‬and the Fry Street has these.‭ ‬It showed good ensemble throughout,‭ ‬notably in the final movement,‭ ‬with its many rapid changes of dynamics,‭ ‬its gruffness and bluster,‭ ‬and its sudden shifts in mood and tempo.

No part of this quartet got an exceptional reading,‭ ‬and the group‭’‬s‭ ‬steady control of its interpretation came at the cost of some emotional temperature.‭ ‬But then again,‭ ‬the boisterousness of the fifth movement brought generous applause from the audience,‭ ‬which‭ ‬showed that this admirable foursome had succeeded in keeping the crowd‭’‬s attention through one of the most demanding works in the literature to play and hear.‭ ‬– G.‭ ‬Stepanich‭

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