Chamber Music: effortless virtuosity & a grim cantata

Dazzling Prokofiev

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Thursday’s chamber music concert at the Dock Street Theatre presented two infrequently performed works by Prokofiev and Haydn and ended with one of Bach’s cantatas for solo bass, Ich habe genug, BWV 82.

The concert opened with a dazzling performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s Quintet in G minor, Op. 39, a prickly vibrant work that Prokofiev based on music from his ballet Trapeze, written in Paris in 1923. It features intricate and dissonant counterpoint, along with ostinatos reminiscent of Stravinsky’s music, including Histoire du soldat. The ensemble of musicians handled this complex work with effortless virtuosity. Singling out any one musician would be unfair: this was a perfectly-matched and cohesive ensemble. Certainly the audience — which took a cue from the flashy ending of the fifth movement (out of six!) and applauded enthusiastically — must have been pleased to discover an unfamiliar and appealing work, as demonstrated, too, by the second round of lively applause after the final movement. The performance deserved two ovations, in any case. Haydn’s Trio for Piano, Flute, and Cello in F major (Hob.XV:17) sounded lightweight after the Prokofiev, but it was charming and well-executed nonetheless.

The concert ended with a largely successful performance of Ich habe genug by baritone Tyler Duncan and an expanded ensemble including James Austin Smith on oboe and Pedja Muzijevic on harpsichord. Textures were transparent, with violinists Geoff Nuttall and Livia Sohn often eschewing vibrato in favor of a slightly astringent and pure tone similar to that cultivated by period-instrument ensembles.

The continuo section, consisting of harpsichord, cello, and double bass, was at times too bulky, with some problematic lack of coordination in several sections. Duncan’s performance was idiomatic and assured, although the treatment of the final aria (“Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod”) was unusual. Here, the soloist took an aggressive, even strident stance, singing the aria of triumphant reconciliation with death as if cut through with irony or despair. Perhaps the aria is not quite joyful — the minor mode keeps this celebratory vision of death in check — yet would the believer’s attitude on the February Sunday in 1727 when this cantata was first performed have been so grim?

chamber music, circa 2010
  • chamber music, circa 2010

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