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12.12.03

Musicians from Marlboro I — by Jens Laurson

Ionarts is happy to welcome new contributor Jens F. Laurson—formerly of Munich, Germany, and now of Washington, D.C.—who brings an interesting perspective on the state of music performance in our nation's capital. His first two reviews we are publishing are of concerts given in late November.

Marking the beginning of the "Musicians from Marlboro" series at the Freer Gallery, this program of Mozart, Ravel and Schumann chamber music, presented on November 18, was a good start.

Three young musicians came on stage to give a quaint and lovely rendition of Mozart’s Piano Trio K. 502 in B-flat major. Tai Murry on violin was convincing and left one in want of more—especially for music that might be more energetic—as the repertoire seemed to hold her back unduly, if ever so slightly. Cellist Peter Stumpf, by far the most mature player in the bunch, was superb and flawless, while pianist Anna Polonsky was exuberant in her expressions, although more physically than musically. While it may not have been a performance of a light piece that was especially memorable, it was well done and rightly well received.

The program picked up a notch or two when the Sonata for Violin and Cello by Maurice Ravel was presented. Peter Stumpf again on cello, almost fatherly in his support and energy, and Timothy Fain on violin. The latter, a young man of Joshua-Bellish good looks, played admirably, but seemed strangely stiff in a way that reminded me more (and unkindly) of Andre Rieu. The Sonata was new to my ears and betrayed influences of Bartok and, as pointed out by the informative program notes, Debussy. The lively finale had Mozartian elements in a technical exterior that evoked Bartok’s String Quartet #5. Faced with something visibly and audibly difficult to play, Mssrs. Fain and Stumpf had the audience captured with music that does not often command the full attention of the conservative Washington audience. Only in the pianissimo passages did the violin seem to have occasional weaknesses.

The Schumann Piano Quintet op.44 (E-flat major) was the concluding piece of the evening. And so the four incredibly talented musicians (I would guess them to be in their early 20s, the cellist being the exception) who had played so far were joined by equally talented Carrie Dennis on viola in this stalwart of the Romantic chamber music repertoire. Again, Peter Stumpf seemed the center of gravity, in what was "Hausmusik" of the highest order. Refreshingly brisk, not as cohesive as when a veteran string quartet form the body of the piece, but immensely gratifying thanks to the sheer musicality of the performers. The movement "Modo di una marcia" was perhaps the greatest challenge, and Mr. Fain’s breathing was oddly audible. But when the rapture of the music took over again, everything was back on track.

Perhaps this was a figment of my imagination, but some of the instruments did not seem as sonorous and well rounded as I would like. Noticeable, especially, in the lower registers. That a "circa mid-1700 Cigli Viola" should sound unsatisfying (even "boxy") to my amateur ears is difficult to believe. It might be interesting to speculate that I have been spoiled by the exposure to the instruments of the Juilliard String Quartet and their like at the well-equipped Library of Congress.

With a few days between the performance and my recollection, I’d sum up that while the Mozart was ever so nice and the Schumann spoke for itself, it was the Ravel that was most intriguing. Even when perfection of execution had perhaps been missed by some margin, the music had been well communicated and leaves me, for one, in search of a delectable performance on record—by tomorrow at the latest.

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