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NYC's CMS treats Van Friends

Bravura Mozart, Weber & Brahms chamber recital by Lincoln Center group

Six of New York's finest in Star Chamber Session. Photo: CMSLC

Chamber music, uniquely in the classical repertoire, offers an intimacy that’s irresistible to its most fervent devotees. Through repeat engagements, audiences and ensembles build up a rapport over the years.

No wonder, then, that our own Friends of Chamber Music keeps booking New York’s Chamber Music Society (CMS) of Lincoln Centre into the downtown Vancouver Playhouse. But even in that august precinct, the small-bore orchestration allowed the personalities of individual instruments – and performers – to shine through.

Consider, for instance, Mozart’s “Kegelstatt” trio, which opened Tuesday’s recital. All three movements presented a dialogue between a flirty clarinet and a grumbly viola, with a lyrical piano to mediate between them.

The contrasting voices were enhanced by the physical disparity of the performers. Clarinettist Tomasso Longquich towered over the compact violist, Yura Lee. With each new gambit, he’d sway and levitate onto his tip-toes as she canted forward, furiously bowing her peeved riposte. It was left up to pianist Gilles Vonsattel, tucked away upstage behind them, to discretely change the subject after each rebuff.

By item two on the programme, Carl Maria von Weber’s B-flat major clarinet quintet, at least all the musicians managed to sit down, the better to accommodate cellist Nicholas Canellakis, who was stationed downstage left alongside violist Lee. Two violinists, Erin Keefe and Ida Kavafian, anchored downstage right.

And perched right in the middle of the row, barely containable in his chair, was clarinettist Longquich again, the uncontested star of the piece. As the strings melded in close harmony, the clarinet swooped and soared operatically all over the soundscape.

Opera, in fact, was where Weber made his major mark during his short but dazzling life (1786-1826). And Italian-born Longquich, true to the stage-struck passion of his homeland, rendered Weber’s solo passages with truly operatic flair.

Now and then, after a particularly virtuosic riff, he’d even unhand the keys of his instrument to toss off a Pavarottiesque wave. And in the third movement presto he visually enacted the goaty etymology of the term capriccio, positively gambolling in place as he frisked from altissimo to clarion and back again.

All the more pointed, then, the contrast with the post-intermission latter half of the programme, which was given over entirely to Brahms’ expansive F-minor quintet, Opus 34. No more frilly clarinet; instead, pianist Vonsattel returned to the stage, but this time with a big-boned allegro that undergirded the rippling musculature of the strings.

And then, in the second movement, the tone changed again. Now it was the lyrical Brahms – he of the famous Cradle Song – setting a measured, meditative piano line against an increasingly angsty background of strings. In the ensuing scherzo, Vonsattel paced himself at an invigorating cantor rather than a breakneck gallop, then juddered to a halt for a melodic interlude before pelting on again to the movement’s finish line.

Which brought us to the bravura finale. It started with a taut, almost atonal introduction on the strings, built to a crescendo and then subsided again to make way for a piano-cum-cello duet. More ebbs and flows -- almost a super-abundance of melodic and dynamic material -- before the quintet wound up with a plunging prestissimo coda.

The momentum left the audience momentarily breathless before rising for a well-deserved ovation.

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