The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Mosaic Chamber Players finishes its season with moving and heartfelt performances of two late masterpieces by Franz Schubert

March 22, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker, who also took the performance photos.

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.


By John W. Barker

The Mosaic Chamber Players gave their final concert of the season at the First Unitarian Society of Madison on Saturday night.

The program was irresistible—all Schubert.

In fact, just two works, both among his last compositions, as he faced imminent death at 31 in 1828. The two are highly individual, but have in common a free use of theme-with-variations techniques.

The first was the rarely heard Fantasy in C, D. 934, the last of only some six compositions by Schubert (below) for violin and piano—not an idiom with which we identify him.

Franz Schubert big

It is a long sequence of contrasting sections, which defies sonata form and stretches on to a degree that puzzled its first hearers. A great deal of it follows a familiar mixture popular in the early 19th-century, music more for piano with violin accompaniment than the other way around. After all Schubert did play the piano himself, but not the violin.

This poses a challenge for the violinist, but Laura Burns (below left) met it valiantly, playing with great feeling and strength—though I wondered if she could have been helped by having the piano lid only half-opened, rather than fully.

(In a YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the Fantasy for Violin and Piano, performed live by violinist Benjamin Beilman, who turned in a riveting performance last October of the Violin Concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.)

Joining her was the Mosaic group’s founder and director, Jess Salek (below right), whose formidable pianism was the anchor of the whole concert and the clear inspiration for his partners.

Mosaic Schubert Laura Burns and Jess Salek CR John W. Barker

The second, and even longer work was the Trio No. 2 in E-flat major, D. 929, in which Salek was joined by violinist Wes Luke (below left) and cellist Michael Allen (below right).

This is an expansive work, stretching forms and tonalities to their utmost, in music that ranges from melting beauty to frightening power. The three players gave it their all in a performance of gusto and intensity.

Mosaic Schubert Trio CR John W. Barker

This was chamber music playing of the first rank and a great gift to Madison music lovers by instrumentalists who perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and the Madison Youth Choirs.

And it was a compelling tribute to Schubert.

It made me feel as if, somehow, I might hug the young dying genius and whisper in his ear: “Take cheer—you will live beyond your life!”

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