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Xiao-Dong Wang
Xiao-Dong Wang

Concert review: New York 1

New York, USA: Monday 1 May 2006
The Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players are a New York institution. Their annual series of concerts has been described as "one of the city's cultural jewels". Formed in memory of the legendary Jens Nygaard, whose all-Raff concert in New York in 2000 was such a milestone, they carry on his tradition of playing the music of lesser known masters and the forgotten offspring of acknowledged greats. Their venue is the Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church which nestles just behind the Julliard School and the other cultural icons making up the city's Lincoln Center. This intimate space was host to full houses for both the matinee and the evening performances of a fascinating programme showcasing a diverse collection of works by Beethoven, Berwald, Mendelssohn and, of course, Raff.

First in the programme came Mendelssohn's Variations and Scherzo, a late work for string quartet. This proved to be attractive, if not profound music. What lifted it out of the ordinary was the gutsy approach of the quartet, lead by first violin Xiao-Dong Wang. No pretty-precious approach to Mendelssohn here: the Variations were full of full-blooded tortured romance and the Scherzo, although certainly fleet, was without a hint of "faerie". Cellist Ani Aznavoorian and violist Eric Nowlin matched Wang in power and presence, although 2nd violin Lisa Shitoten was perhaps rather outgunned.

An arrangement for flute, oboe and clarinet of Beethoven's Trio op.87 followed. This early four movement piece was played with great élan by Barry Crawford, Robert Ingliss and Vadim Lando, who demonstrated an effortless sense of ensemble. A delicate Allegro was followed by a stately and controlled Adagio cantabile, a brief woodland Menuetto and a lively and demanding finale. It was an object lesson in delightful music making.

Beethoven's song Adelaide ushered in tenor Noah Stewart and pianist Yung Wook Yoo. Stewart's rich, ardnt delivery in excellent German was well supported by Yoo's restrained accompaniment in this lovely early romantic piece. He switched to Swedish for Berwald's quirky Serenade for piano, tenor, clarinet, horn, viola, cello and double bass which ended the first half. The charm of the work lay in its tuneful naivety and its simple combination of three straightforward lyrical verses (once again beautifully sung, but over-emoted) with more worked out instrumental interludes. These comprised a stormy introduction of almost amateurish spareness together with a couple of attractive solo episodes for piano and clarinet. Stewart and Karl Kramer-Johansen (French horn) gave the closing bars a warm and gentle wistfulness which was quite disarming.

For the second half Yoo joined the string quartet for Raff's Piano Quintet. This is a work conceived on an altogether larger and more romantic canvas than those in the first half. The pacing of the opening Allegro mosso assai was finely judged, allowing the tension to build through the movement from a sonorous and measured start, whilst not riding roughshod over its more reflective moments. Both Wang and Aznavoorian adopted an almost concertante approach to their parts when the opportunity presented itself, but the overall ensemble was never in danger. This was a robust performance, bordering perhaps on the ver-passionate, showcasing Raff's romantic credentials.

The second movement was treated to an altogether less portentous reading. It fizzed along without being frenetic, the melody constantly flitting between instruments. Yoo and Nowlin's contributions were especially fine here. It's Trio was taken lyrically but not that much slower than the outer sections and the transition from it to the opening material at the movement's end was a spine tingling moment. The players recognised that the slow movement is the work's centre of gravity and gradually built it up from it's simple beginning into a satisfyingly passionate outpouring. It's beautifully controlled close brought heartsease in a most affecting manner.

In a finale of stature, Yoo and Wang vied for prominence. Taken at a fast, but not hectic, pace it was another demonstration of the quintet's admirable technique. Although piano and first violin stood out from the texture rather more often than perhaps Raff intended, this wasn't to the music's detriment and added to it's excitement.

The piece was rapturously received by the audience. No doubt it's overwhelming effect was enhanced by being the only full-bloodedly romantic work on the programme and the fact that this was a "big" performance, arguably a little too much so for an intimate venue with a reverberant acoustic. No matter. Any performance which can provoke the comment, whispered between movements to one of the Raffianers present, "I don't understand why they don't get up and cheer after each movement" has got to be welcomed. Every one of the performers was committed to Raff's great work, and it showed. How different from the only available recording - Ensemble Villa Musica's dreary rendition for MDG (review).

Mark Thomas

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