Winter Chamber Music Festival 2020 Review- two wonderful programs

Aizuri Quartet; photo by Ari Sloss

This reviewer recently had the opportunity to attend the first 2 Friday night concerts of Northwestern University  Bienen School of Music’s 24th Annual Winter Chamber Music Festival at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall on the Evanston campus. They were both characterized by the excellence of the musicianship as well as the delight of the audience.

On Friday, January 10, 2020, James Ehnes, violin and Andrew Armstrong, piano opened  the Festival with the first of a 2-part program, a continuation from last year’s series, the second concert to follow on January 12th, at the completion of which the duo will have presented all of Beethoven’s violin sonatas.

Ehnes and Anderson, who have been working together for well over a decade, and have been recording and touring with the sonatas, present a virtuoso, exceptionally fluid, clear and lovely rendering of these gems of the repertoire.

James Ehnes; photo by Benjamin Ealovega

Music of Ludwig van Beethoven: 
Violin Sonata No. 1 in D Major, Op. 12, No. 1
Violin Sonata No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 12, No. 3

Two of Beethoven’s first 3 sonatas for piano and violin, op. 12, numbers 1 and 3, composed in 1799, and dedicated to his teacher Antonio Salieri, were beautifully played. The contrast between the dark and dramatic No. 1 and the earthy No. 3 was truly compelling.  In particular, the presentation of the 3rd sonata displayed an easy and certain partnership between the artists; the first movement vivid, the second lyrical, the third spirited.

Violin Sonata No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 23
Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24 (“Spring”)

These Sonatas, composed in 1801, are said to have brought a clarity to the concerto style, demonstrably more mature.  Op. 24, (known as The Spring Sonata because of its “birdcall” sounds and sense of lighthearted happiness), reveals a composer testing a certain freedom in style.

As the artists played, Ehnes seeming practically nonchalant while drawing forth a honeyed/woody tone from his incomparable Stradivarius, Armstrong in contrast displaying his sensitive emotions in his face; the 2 instruments presented an equality of sound and sharing built into the pieces by the composer, and maximized in their duets.

Andrew Armstrong; photo by Benjamin Ealovega

On Friday, Jan. 17, 2020, the stellar all-female  Aizuri Quartet presented a carefully curated program of works spanning 8 centuries, the connecting thread of which was described as “isolation.” Emma Frucht, violin; Miho Saegusa, violin; Ayane Kozasa, viola; and Karen Ouzounian, cello, gave a joint and several complex and cohesive account of the chosen repertoire.

In the first half of the program, an uncanny piece by 12th century mystic abbess-nun Hildegard von BingenColumba aspexit, was followed immediately by 2 madrigals by 16th century composer Carlo Gesualdo, O tenebroso giorno and Io parto’ e non più dissi; all 3 pieces arranged by Alex Fortes.  The attacca approach served to highlight what Fortes describes as “the irrational and idiosyncratic” similarities in their compositions; he notes that his arrangements are an “attempt to recreate the drones, antiphons, and contrapuntal textures that might exist in vocal performances of these works.”

Next on the program was modern composer Conlon Nancarrow’s wildly creative String Quartet No. 3. Each part is written in a different meter and the 4 musicians joined in an unusual and impressive divergence and synthesis of harmonics.

The last piece before the intermission was the stuff of more traditional chamber concerts,  Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in B Minor, Op. 64, No. 2, which was introduced- and played- as an elevating piece filled with the composer’s signature cheeky wit.

Aizuri members Frucht and Saegusa have penned program notes about these selections, and in describing the closing piece, which marked Beethoven’s 250th birthday, “We will close with Beethoven’s monumental String Quartet Op. 131, which we feel encapsulates elements of all the other works on the program… This quartet explores the physical and sonic limits that four players can reach, and yet also finds the sublime and generous nature of humanity”.

The 7-movement work, crafted by a fully deaf Beethoven, heroically delivers a full exploration of the range of human emotion, and so did the singing rendition presented by Aizuri, whose reassured playing- like the informed introductory remarks the members spoke about the pieces- is an amalgam of fine technique, visceral feeling, and bravura intelligence.

Aizuri Quartet; photo by Ari Sloss

The Winter Chamber Music Festival continues through January 26, 2020.

For tickets and more information, call the Bienen School ticket office at 847-467-4000 or visit concertsatbienen.org.

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