The medieval Rector’s Palace in Dubrovnik’s old town, home to most of the chamber concerts of the Julian Rachlin & Friends Festival, looks like a cheap—no, very expensive, actually—opera set courtesy Jean-Pierre Ponelle or Karajan-as-director. Its open square, three stories high, high enough that you can’t see the sky if you sit beneath the arcades of the second level, stone arches and stairways so correspond to stereotypes of old movie sets that one could get the idea it’s all fake, not the Gothic-Renaissance real deal.
Given the large gathering before the palace well before the beginning, and the scores of people sitting on the stairs and behind pillars—lots of those seats were empty at the concert, probably due to the lack of famous non-musical attractions such as the names that are Roger Moore or John Malkovich. To give the occasion some context, I told my company, who didn’t quite know what to expect, that if a refined concert setting on a ‘regular’ stage by ‘regular’ collaborators was—ideally—akin to going to one of the best restaurants in town, this affair would be more like going to a barbecue with friends… amiable, casual, but likely without the perfection or refinement.
As it turns out, that was selling the Tuesday concert well short. Now, admittedly I haven’t been spoiled with great chamber music in the last few years (Quatuor Èbéne and Apollon Musagete apart), but even so, this was plain excellent. Violist Lawrence Power, pianist Itamar Golan, cellist Torleif Thedéen, and last-minute substitute violinist Boris Brovtsyn (replacing the indisposed Janine Jansen) proved that not just musicality is a given, among good, keen, mutually admiring players, but intonation, too. From what I’ve heard pass as acceptable string playing in competitions and on recordings, this was comparatively brilliant and absolutely very good, with the Brovtsyn a little on the dominating side, but never even a remote hint that he was performing the Fauré Piano Quartet and the Brahms Sextet for the first time, on 24 hours (!) notice. Little wonder the slightly inebriated Julian Rachlin later singled him out for the most lavish, loving praise in honor of “true musicians”.
Between two romantic works, Rachlin fit a piano trio by Richard Dubugnon’s “Dubrovnik” Piano Trio, commissioned for the occasion and given its world premiere. Much appreciated music with a pulse, in every sense. Easy on the ears, even if the introductory speech had not been given (or shorter, at least), it was pleasure even when the balance shifted dangerously far away from the cello. Only an excess of mutual gratitude and admiration between Rachlin and Dubugnon caused a spot of tedium; the overlong violin solo for Rachlin would have been twice as interesting at half the duration.
Julia-Maria Kretz (second violin), Leonard Elschenbroich (second cello), and Julian Rachlin (second viola [sic]) joined the three string players from the Fauré Quartet to play the Brahms Sextet, and again you could hear not just abundant talent but earnest effort and rehearsal time that contributed to the gorgeous string sound from these players. Even the pigeons, which had also bemoaned the Dubugnon violin solo, were silenced. Or overpowered. Coming to the space for the first time, the acoustic was the great surprise. Fearing something like the National Gallery’s East Wing atrium, from the first notes one got a very rich, but never messy, brawny string sound that worked just about as well with the piano (apparently a bit on the loud side below, a little receded further up) as it did just with strings.
If the Rector’s Palace in Dubrovnik features a splendid acoustic, the same unfortunately cannot be said for Dubrovnik’s beautiful but acoustically scary Assumption Cathedral, the alternative venue when the threat of rain looms over the harbor city. The concert on Wednesday was wisely moved, because within minutes of Lily Maisky (yes, if you are wondering) playing Chopin Nocturnes, it started pouring in short, repeated spurts. With drops falling in the lulls, and swallows singing through the open thermal windows beneath the central dome, her raindrop Nocturnes took place in the amiable setting of a tropical jungle. There was no knowing yet, how well—indeed marvelously—she navigated the more-than-tricky acoustic and steered away from debilitating reverb, but that was soon to be demonstrated by the third of Schumann’s Piano Trios played by Rachlin, Golan, and Elschenbroich. Now I felt like being back at the National Gallery’s atrium.
Because the concert took place after a UNICEF-cause supporting celebrity soccer match earlier in the day (where musicians, aging footballers, other assorted sport stars, and giddy critics took to the field), the cathedral was stuffed with some of the most famous Croatian names in football and an Olympic ex-luger. [It was all downhill from here, in terms of fame.] Too bad that they got to hear a mess of sound during the Schumann, where notes and melodies seemed to randomly flow through the space. One fears that the less musically inclined athletes might have played Schumann, or classical music, rather than the acoustic. At least the haze mercifully covered up a performance that wasn’t quite a repeat from the night before, and in the first movement you could hear that Rachlin, a soccer—err: football—enthusiast, had played the full game (and scored a goal). During the Brahms String Quintet, nearly as blurred, I inspected the striking modern relief paintings of the fourteen stations of the cross and the cathedral’s stylish modern of semi-circular carved slabs of rock, which helped pass time until the good, the passable, and the ugly of the Brahms was over.