Polished ensemble lacking in Philharmonic Ensembles’ uneven season finale

Mon May 26, 2014 at 3:10 pm
Fanny Mendelssohn's String Quartet in E flat was performed at Sunday's Philharmonic Ensembles' season finale.

Fanny Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E flat was performed at Sunday’s Philharmonic Ensembles’ season finale.

The last concert in the New York Philharmonic’s “Ensembles” series for the year presented a program of chamber rarities at the Kaufman Center on Sunday. The musicians were largely able to argue convincingly for the music, to show that these pieces, though not well known, have a great deal to offer. Unfortunately, the playing was not consistent enough to let their two main offerings shine through as powerfully as they might have.

The most successful portion of the program was the first set, the last nineteen of Bartók’s 44 Duos for 2 Violins. These are fleeting pieces, most of them barely over a minute long, but Lisa Kim and Hyunju Lee gave them an earnest treatment, digging in with a variety of colors.

At times they succumbed to the temptation of letting the “folksiness” get away from them, so that an aggressive sound choked the music’s buoyancy. For the most part, though, they seemed to be perfectly attuned to the character of the writing, whether it was the ghostly wandering of the “Bánkódás,” the jaunty dancing of the “Szól a duda,” or the rough-hewn jog of the “Arab Dal.”

Lee was joined by violinist Anna Rabinova, violist Irene Breslaw, and cellist Alexei Yupanqui Gonzales for Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E-flat Major—Fanny Mendelssohn, that is, Felix’s oft-overlooked older sister. This is a fascinating piece, deeply lyrical and sentimental, with complex harmonies that seem to look forward to later Romantic developments.

The opening Adagio non troppo, for being in E-flat Major, is dusky at its start, written in thick, dark layers. The musicians played with rich, warm sound creating a fleshy texture. The capricious second movement, though, was hardly recognizable as an Allegretto, dragging in its tempo and oddly lugubrious in its character.

The third movement is a sorrowful Romanze, and featured some absolutely golden playing from Breslaw. As a group they seemed to have a grasp of the piece’s tender feeling even if Rabinova seemed disinterested compared to the other three musicians. The first violin part has some huge, high-ranging lines, dripping with sentiment that would make any violinist melt. Even as her colleagues swelled around her, Rabinova played them with a straight literalism, giving them not so much as a caress.

Further, a technical lapse that bedeviled her in the first three movement became maddeningly distracting in the finale: Rabinova was playing at an intonation consistently lower than that of her colleagues—not quite a quarter tone, but enough to be constantly audible and occasionally glaring in the unison passages between the two violins. The movement is marked “Allegro molto vivace” but the musicians seemed to have trouble keeping up with their own tempo, sounding rushed and out of breath in its opening salvo of running scales.

The second half of the program was Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Piano Quintet in C Minor. This 1903 piece was unpublished during the composer’s lifetime, and his own disdain for it led to its being buried until decades after his death. He may have thought it owed too much to Brahms, but that makes it no less powerful in performance.

The quintet follows the unusual instrumentation of Schubert’s “Trout,” and the performers on Sunday were violinist Sharon Yamada, cellist Nathan Vickery, bassist Satoshi Okamato, pianist Jonathan Feldman, and Breslaw again on the viola. The opening Allegro con fuoco has an almost orchestral business to it, and the performance sounded almost lost—the balance was badly jumbled, so much so that it was nearly impossible to hear the piano. The saving grace of this movement was the deep singing tone of Okamato’s bass.

The balance was clearer in the Andante. With the texture more composed, the performance allowed Feldman to play the piano more delicately and sensitively than he had in the first movement, and there was a sense of direction as their phrasing followed the music’s up-and-down contours.

The theme of the finale’s variations felt almost like a hymnal, it was played with such restraint. Sensitive, lyrical playing from Vickery gave a bright sound and noble demeanor to the music, and stormy stretches were full-bodied all around. Yamada’s thin violin tone apart, it provided a firm ending to a decidedly mixed program.

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