Flying fingers and horsehair at the Dock Street

Chamber series pushes on

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Tuesday’s first outing of the Chamber VIII program offered a couple of musical rarities, but the first item on the agenda wasn’t one of them, unless you count the rare skill with which it was played. I’m speaking of Felix Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capricciosofor solo piano. The piece is a concert staple for pianists who’ve got the fingers for it. Written when Mendelssohn was just 15 and revised four years later, it offers the same kind of blithe, elfin spirit that suffuses several of the composer’s other youthful masterpieces.

Doing the keyboard honors was fabulous Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan, back in town for his second go at Spoleto — and he certainly had the fingers for it. If you don’t know the piece, it can come as quite a surprise when, after its slow and dramatic opening and limpid piano “aria,” all heck breaks loose, and the listener is suddenly buried in a frenzied flurry of fast notes — really fast notes. With treacherous trills (in thirds), flashing arpeggios, thundering octaves and sparkling runs, there’s hardly a virtuoso trick missing. And Barnatan, fingers flying, dealt with it like it was child’s play. Many pianists look scared when they play this one — but Inon just looked like he was having fun.

“I’d pay good money for fingers like that,” quipped host Geoff Nuttall, as he came back onstage to introduce the second number: “A really crazy cello sonata,” as he described it, by English composer Benjamin Britten. Originally composed for his own performance with Russian mega-cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (Britten was a terrific pianist), the piece is a real tour-de-force for both players. Barnatan returned to the Steinway for this one, with festival darling Alisa Weilerstein and her cello in tow.

Launching into the rapid opening “Dialogo” movement, it soon became apparent that the music was indeed a quirky dialogue of sorts — and kind of an angry one, almost as if our musicians were having a fight.

Again, Inon’s fingers flew, as did Alisa’s bow, applied so hard that one of its horsehairs snapped. The bow got a break in the second movement: an animated and near-violent episode marked “scherzo pizzicato,” in which all of the cello’s notes were plucked. This time, it was her hapless cello that got some rough treatment, as Alisa pounded both her cello’s strings and its body — almost as if she were trying to smash it into kindling wood.

After the third movement’s achingly sad and elegiac song (with a passionate outburst or two), the following section’s headlong march-parody again approached mayhem — and another horsehair bit the dust. But in the absolutely savage finale, the casualties mounted as no less than four more hairs went KIA. Never before have I observed such hairy carnage in concert. It was interesting to see how the snapped hair-strands whipped around in the air as she sawed away at her instrument. Believe it or not, the end result was real music — good music — in spite of all the (actually very minor) damage. It was all kind of crazy, for sure, but Britten’s stuff is always interesting and worthwhile. In any case, the crowd loved it.

Taking us to concert’s end was a second set of flying fingers, belonging this time to the versatile Pedja Muzijevic. Backed up by the “Dock Street chamber orchestra” (four strings plus flute), he launched into Austrian composer Carl Czerny’s very rarely heard chamber arrangement of W.A. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20: one of the greatest of the 27 he wrote, and one of only two in a minor key (D minor). In fact, this concert’s version was actually a “world premiere” of sorts, since Czerny’s original manuscript was, according to Geoff, “in terrible shape,” and most of the assorted performers added to it here and there (double-bass whiz Tony Manzo even wrote a new part for his instrument). But — as was borne out in the performance — all such additions were faithful to Mozart’s original orchestral score.

Doctored up or not, this version made for a special listening experience. The opening movement’s dark and ominous brooding gave way to the central “romance” movement’s dreamy mood. That is, until its stormy outburst in the middle section. The final Rondo had some dramatic moments, but never quite got back to the first movement’s angst and gravitas. The performance was absolutely thrilling. Musijevic is a marvelous Mozart pianist, with a special feel for the composer’s grace and crystalline clarity, and his colleagues supported him to the hilt. Chalk up yet another chamber series winner.

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