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High Strung at the Swiss Embassy

If you thought the German Embassy was ugly, you owe yourself a trip to the Swiss Embassy on Cathedral Road. But on the night the Embassy Concert Series presented the Zürich String Trio (on October 21)—consisting of the Brothers Livschitz and the young Armenian cellist Maikael Hakhnazarian—it was what was on the inside that mattered.

When the program notes quote Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Christoph Eschenbach (soon to be at the Kennedy Center with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg [go here for more information]), and Jean Pierre Rampal with high praise for the group, it feels almost difficult to report that in the Mozart-arrangement of Bach's Preludium & Fugue, KV404a, they were a big disappointment. Boris Livschitz's tone on violin was muffled, thin, and squeaky (though loud, when necessary), with his brother Zvi on viola only marginally better. Mr. Hakhnazarian, I thought, fared best, though troubles, including some with intonation, remained.

The piece itself is a prime example of two geniuses at work creating something far lesser than the sum of its parts would suggest. The beginning is almost unidentifable as Bach, and not to its benefit.

The Adagio of the early Beethoven String Trio in C Minor (op. 9, no. 3) had them produce some beautiful music. The attendees were so charmed, indeed, that they lavished each movement with applause... not generally a practice in performances since early last century (though Beethoven, of course, would not have known it any other way...). By the time the finale (Presto) came around, either Boris's instrument or he himself had warmed up a little as the tone became more pleasing, if still far from ideal.

The intermission was skipped (perhaps to heighten the anticipation for the Swiss sweets on offer afterwards), and the Beethoven Duo for Viola and Cello (with a subtitle that was utterly declarified by confusing and seemingly haphazard or incomplete program notes) came upon us. Ziv Livschitz's playing was fraught with the same problems his brother had displayed, while the cello again stood out with a better, fresher tone. Applause and the concluding Menuetto were heartfelt.

Ernst von Dohnanyi, J. Brahms, Serenade in C, String Sextet No. 2 in G, arr. for string orchestra
Ernst von Dohnanyi's Serenade in C Major, op. 10, is a gorgeous thing from a sadly underrated composer. It seems that the Embassy Series, presenting a generally conservative program, always (and laudably) manages to squeeze in one (or two) off-the-beaten-path pieces in the program... even if the Serenade in particular isn't entirely obscure. Its version for string orchestra, arranged by Dmitry Sitkovetsky, is a particularly luscious musical experience.

The fourth movement from Beethoven's Trio, op. 9, no. 3, was thrown in as an encore and kept me from the reception: Cecelia Porter, covering for the Washington Post [see her review], didn't let that get between her and the homemade sweets and other little Swiss delicacies, though.

It might seem a trivial point - but it isn't: The Swiss Embassy and the Embassy Series are to be highly commended for their use of real glasses for the Swiss vino. That's how it ought to be, and it was good to see them set the standard for other such events.

Talking to Boris Livschitz, who went to some length to make sure I understood he did not mean it to be an excuse, shed some light on the problems with the sound he had produced: his fingerboard had been too low for some time and he had it just replaced. In that process the bridge had also been replaced. Not liking the new bridge, Mr. Livschitz put the old one back in, which was better, but now the strings are far too close to the fingerboard. That—and perhaps exhaustion from travels?—is good enough for me. Aside, all but one other attendee whom I talked to loved the concert plenty.

If that was the least satisfying event the Embassy Series has to offer, it need not worry in the least about its offerings and wonderful mission of working in the trenches of public diplomacy.

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