by Michael Caruso
The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill hosted the first of this year’s “Cantatas and Chamber Music” series of recitals Sunday, Jan. 20. The performers were pianist Mark Livshits, violinist Kimberly Fisher and cellist John Koen. The latter two are longtime members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Livshits is a recently graduated BM/MM/DMA alumnus of Temple University’s Esther Boyer College of Music, where he studied for 10 years with Charles Abramovic.
The three performed Johannes Brahms’ Piano Trio in B major, Opus 8, and Maurice Ravel’s Trio in A minor. Although on the one hand you couldn’t find two more diverse examples of this particular form of chamber music, literally invented by Franz Joseph Haydn in the 18th century, you’d also have to admit that both composers adhered to Haydn’s original structural strictures. And had you been in attendance Sunday afternoon, you’d also have to admit that the Livshits/Fisher/Koen Trio gave both scores riveting interpretations.
In performance, the Brahms Piano Trio in B major sounded nothing like so early a work as its Opus 8 numbering would lead you to expect. And you’d be right. Although Brahms composed the work in 1853, he substantially revised it in 1889. In this version, it certainly displays all of the composer’s mastery of romantic emotions expressed in classical forms.
All three musicians declaimed the first movement’s themes in glowing tones, each line given its particular due yet heard within the context of the two-part counterpoint of the strings blossoming over the symphonic foundation of the piano writing. By maintaining the dramatic narrative of the exposition straight through the development and then to the recapitulation’s coda, they rounded out the movement’s circle of life in sound.
They caught the demonic intensity of the second movement Scherzo: Allegro molto, then sang the third movement Adagio’s chaste lyricism with compelling phrasing. Finally, they brought the entire Trio to a rousing conclusion with a sweeping rendition of its Finale: Allegro.
After intermission, the Livshits/FisherKoen Trio turned their attention to Maurice Ravel’s justly acclaimed Piano Trio in A minor. Composed in 1914, on the very eve of the outbreak of World War I, Ravel’s only foray into the piano trio form is a marvel of classical structure voiced in the minor modes of the Basque countryside that was the homeland of his mother. Its four movements feature an austere Modere, a quirky Pantoum, a hypnotic Passacaille, and a sweeping Final (Anime).
Here the three musicians placed the opulent tones with which they played the Brahms on the strictest of diets. Fisher’s violin was intensely focused, Koen coaxed a bracing timbre from his cello, and Livshits’ playing recalled the edgy colors of Ravel’s neo-baroque suite, “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” written in memory of six of his friends killed in the “Great War to End All Wars” – which it sadly did not. Highlighting the Trio’s pungent dissonances and their often-surprising resolutions, they established a texture that was never too refined to lose its bite.
In truth, the performances of both the Brahms and the Ravel Trios had a fourth member: Chestnut Hill Presbyterian’s gloriously restored vintage Steinway & Sons grand piano. Built in New York during the years in between the Brahms’s revision and the Ravel’s composition, it made the perfect collaborator for the splendid pianist Mark Livshits to collaborate with violinist Kimberly Fisher and cellist John Koen. I, for one, hope that the ensemble becomes a permanent one and that the musicians regularly perform with this particular piano in their midst and with this particular venue as their home.
Proving the flexibility of the acoustics of the main sanctuary of the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, it will be the site of “Broken Consort,” a program featuring the Tempesta di Mare Chamber Players. The concert will take place Friday, Feb. 1, at 8 p.m., and will feature music from the Elizabethan and Restoration eras in England.
The evening’s featured guest artists will include soprano Julianne Baird, lute & theorbo player Christopher Morrongiello and Mark Cudek on cistern & guitar. They will join Tempesta regulars Gywn Roberts on flute & recorder, violinist Emlyn Ngai, viola da gamba player Lisa Terry, and Richard Stone on lute, bandora & theorbo.
The program includes music by William Byrd, Peter Phillips, John Dowland, William Lawes, Nicholas Lanier, Christopher Simpson, Robert Johnson, Matthew Locke and John Wilson.
For ticket information, call 215-755-8776 or visit tempestadimare.org
‘LE CLAVECIN FRANCAIS’
Although he won’t be playing Friday evening, Tempesta’s resident harpsichordist Adam Pearl has just released a compact disc entitled “Le Clavecin Francais” (The French Harpsichord) on the Plectra label. The CD features music by Claude-Benigne Balbastre, Jacques Duphly, Jean-Baptiste Forqueray and Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer.
Aside from the draw of the compelling playing of Pearl, an alumnus and faculty member of the Peabody Conservatory of Music of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and the out-of-the-way character of the music, the interpretations on the album were performed on a fully restored 1768 harpsichord originally made by Joannes Goermans. While it may be impossible to truly recapture the sound of this incredibly colorful music as it was first heard by its 18th century audiences in the settings of those initial encounters, this recording comes about as close as modern listeners are capable of experiencing.
And sonic variety of timbre is the name of the game in the French harpsichord repertoire. These predecessors of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel’s late 19th and early 20th century Impressionism created distinct aural worlds through the registrations of their harpsichords and the changing effects of smooth legato and clipped staccato.
Adam Pearl plays these pieces with all the brilliance and lyricism those of us who regularly hear him in Chestnut Hill with Tempesta di Mare have come to expect from his artistry. If you’re a “Francophile” like me, then this is a CD not to pass by.
The Academy of Vocal Arts, 1920 Spruce St., opened its production of Antonin Dvorak’s “Rusalka” Saturday, Jan. 26, in its Helen Corning Warden Theater. The mounting was conducted and accompanied at the piano by Luke Housner and stage directed by East Falls’ K. James McDowell, who is AVA’s president & artistic director.
The opera is based on a legend surrounding water nymph Rusalka’s desire to experience human emotions and the tragedy this wreaks on everyone involved in her effort to make her dream come true. While the Czech-language libretto of “Rusalka” is short on literal reality, it is far longer on the legitimate longings of human beings for the things that are, more often than not, just out of reach.
The strength of “Rusalka” can be found in the power and beauty of the music Dvorak composed to bring it to life on the operatic stage. Even in the reduced piano arrangement of the orchestral score, one can’t help but admire Dvorak for his effortless delineation of narrative and character, all splendidly conceived and realized in an unimpeded flow of vocal and instrumental music. Housner, one of AVA’s master vocal coaches, conducted his strong cast with a gentle yet firm hand and played the daunting piano part with technical assurance and tonal amplitude.
Philadelphia native Kara Mulder sang and acted commandingly in the title role. Her powerfully projected soprano soared above the piano accompaniment for the opera’s most dramatic moments, yet she also sang with telling intimacy when expressing her fears and disappointments.
Tenor John Matthews Myers sang beautifully as the Prince who is the object of Rusalka’s romantic aspirations. His voice rang out with clarion brilliance, yet he, too, was able to sustain his soft singing with admirable lyricism.
Bass Eric Delagrange was a threatening yet oddly consoling Water Gnome, warning Rusalka of the dangerous futility of her wish to become human. Mezzo-soprano Alice Chung proved a demonic yet prescient Jazibaba, the water sorceress. And soprano Claire de Monteil was stunning as the vengeful foreign princess.
McDowell’s stage direction was grandiose yet focused. Meryl Dominguez’s choreography made excellent use of the small space available to her and Val Starr’s costume & wig design offered a watery world of promise and danger.
AVA’s production of “Rusalka” continues through Feb. 2. For ticket information, call 215-735-1685 or visit avaopera.org