The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Con Vivo delivers moving and memorable performances of German Romantic chamber music for clarinet and strings by Brahms and Schubert.

November 1, 2015
7 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who for 12 years hosted an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

John Barker

In another absurdly overcrowded weekend of events, I chose to catch the concert by Con Vivo! (below), the group based at the First Congregational United Church of Christ. It is always good for an adventurous and varied evening of chamber music, and this one on Friday night was no exception.

Con Vivo 2015

Back from a tour last June in Germany of the  sister province of Kassel, the group chose to present what it called an evening of “German Romance’. The program contained only two works: the Trio in A minor, Op. 114, for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, by Johannes Brahms; and Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major, D. 956.

I had heard a kind of dress rehearsal performance the previous evening in the Grand Hall at Capitol Lakes, and it was interesting to compare simply the acoustical effects. That hall is live but modest in size, so that everything was close, if somewhat dry. In the spacious confines of the Congregational Church, there was a more glowing reverberation, if a notable difference in distances.

For practical reasons, the Brahms work was played at the far end of the church’s chancel, next to the organ, losing some of the intimate contact it should have with the audience. But the sound did carry well, with warmth.

The work was the first of a series of late chamber works Brahms composed, as inspired by the eminent clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld. Unlike its successors, this trio did not feature the clarinet as the dominant soloist, but gave it an affectionately duetting role with the cello.

Clarinetist Robert Taylor (below left) played with ripe confidence, but cellist Derek Handley served as a distinctly individual partner in his own right. Dan Lyons was a muscular Brahmsian on the piano. It proved a beautiful performance of a work not too readily encountered in concert. (You can hear the songful third movement in a YouTube at the bottom.)

Con Vivo Brahms clarinet Trio 2015) 2

The other work is one of the most sublime chamber pieces ever composed. Schubert wrote it just two months before his death, of syphilis, at the pitiful age of 31. He knew he was dying, and in this last major work of his, he poured into the music the most incredible mixture of beauty and pain.

Once one gets below the glowing aura of the ensemble writing, it becomes obvious that there is an imbalance in textures. The first violin part is clearly dominant, frequently given almost a soloist’s role against mostly chordal accompaniments by the other four players (including a second cello). At times one might even imagine the violin as a singer in some new Schubert Lieder, or songs.

Con Vivo Schubert Quintet 2015 JWB

Con Vivo 2015 Brahms quintet playing

Fortunately, first violinist Olga Pomolova, who also plays with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, was fully on target in intonation and in passages of virtuosic display. The other players joined her in a deeply felt and richly delivered performance that was simply superb.

It was an evening, then, of the most deeply satisfying chamber playing.

 


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