Chamber plays in ‘Bohème’ style

The Williams Chamber Players kicked off the year with music from the Czech Republic in the aptly-named “Bohemian Adventures.” The concert opened with Glinka’s Trio Pathétique in D Minor, originally written in 1832 for clarinet, bassoon and piano, although it is more commonly played with violin, cello and piano today, a version requested by Glinka’s publisher. One of Glinka’s early works, its orchestration works well for either set of instruments but distinguishes itself best when played in its original intended form.

The first movement, “Allegro moderato,” is traditionally structured, bracketed by variations on its principal theme, which consists of an intricate dialog between the three instruments. On clarinet was Susan Martula, on bassoon Stephen Walt and on piano, Edwin Lawrence. The trio handled this dialog wonderfully, beautifully rendering the tonal interactions in Glinka’s unique orchestration. The middle of the movement consisted of bright piano passages, which foreshadowed the playful virtuosic piano part of the second movement, “Scherzo,” accompanied by simple harmonic lines from the woodwinds. Lawrence impressed the audience with his technical skill, gracefully handling the movement’s demanding passages. At times, Lawrence neglected to acknowledge the bassoon’s subtle role, frequently overpowering its mellow tone throughout the movement.

The centerpiece of the Pathétique, the sober third movement “Largo,” began with an intentionally abrupt transition from the jovial melodies of the “Scherzo.” Though somewhat awkward, it served to accentuate the movement’s overbearing ominousness. The piano ceded its virtuosic role to the woodwinds, with the clarinet and the bassoon engaging in a rending dialog. The clarinet’s upper register passages recalled tumultuous fits of agony with the bassoon recalling its somber gravity. The final movement, “Allegro con spirito,” sees an animated reprise of the initial theme before proceeding to a dramatic conclusion, which the performers imbued with passion equal to that of “Largo.”

Next on the program was Janáček’s Sonata for Violin and Piano. The piece’s four movements had markedly different tones, each of which violinist Joanna Kurkowicz handled extremely well. Sonata’s first movement “Con moto” opened with a passionate violin passage echoed by the piano. Kurkowicz and pianist Elizabeth Wright perfectly complemented each other, particularly in difficult musical dialogues throughout the first movement in which the slightest balance problems would disrupt Janáček’s meticulously arranged harmonies.

“Scherzo,” the third movement, opens with demanding lines for both the violin and piano, requiring precisely executed trills and rapid scalar passages. These soon give way to a simplistic pastoral melody before dramatically concluding in a reprise of the opening’s technical passages, culminating in an abrupt ending. Although Kurkowicz and Wright’s finesse was impressive, I was more struck by the delicacy with which they executed the movement’s central passages. The elegance of the violin’s long doubled stopped passages provided a wonderful counterpart to the piano’s staccato harmony.

The final movement seemed like an extension of the “Scherzo,” consisting of serene passages punctuated by bursts of fast scales and spiccato passages. As in the third movement, the musicians handled this contrast extremely well, dramatically accentuating the movement’s tonal shifts. This was epitomized in the piece’s ending: The audience was on the verge of applauding after the piano appeared to end the piece through a soft diminuendo, but that diminuendo was suddenly followed by the actual forceful conclusion.
The program concluded with Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A Major, written in 1887 as the result of heavy revisions to one of his prior piano quintets. Cellist Ronald Feldman, second violinist Joana Genova and violist Scott Woolweaver joined Kurkowicz and Wright. The cello quietly opens the first movement “Allegro,” with the melody that will permeate the rest of the movement. This is followed by an animated reiteration of the theme from the upper strings, the variations on which constitute the rest of the movement. “Allegro” ended in a dramatic flourish, which was quickly followed by the enigmatic piano melody of the second movement “Andante con moto.” The second movement consists of repetitions of the piano theme defined at the beginning, divided by increasingly frequent abrupt transitions into fast passages signaling the impending third movement.

The third movement and the fourth movement each opened jovially before quickly lapsing into more subdued middle passages, ultimately returning to their bright opening themes. The Chamber Players clearly enjoyed the extreme contrast present in the Quintet, enthusiastically transitioning between the various moods Dvořák sought to convey. The Chamber Players handled these phrases with fluidity, making a rather fragmented piece seem exceptionally coherent.