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Token Creek: Schubert, Mozart

Schubert: 12 Laendler, D. 790
Schubert: Quintet in C Major, D. 956
Mozart: Fantasy, K. 608
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-Flat Major, K. 449

Ya-Fei Chuang, piano
Rose Mary Harbison, violin
Timothy Summers, violin
Joan Ellersick, viola
Rhonda Rider, cello
David Russell, cello
Robert Levin, piano


As the sun slanted brilliantly through the three-story high, reverberant atrium of American Family's sprawling, sleek office building Sunday afternoon, John Harbison stepped forward to launch this year's Token Creek Chamber Music Festival with the provocative reminder that the genius of Schubert and Mozart is fully as present in their small works as it is in their great ones. The music that followed, in performances of absolutely the highest caliber, amply demonstrated his point with a small work and a large work by each composer.

Schubert's utterly astounding inventiveness, overwhelming even in works you've known perfectly for a lifetime, and alloyed as always with a charm and sweetness tinged with melancholy, was fully on display in his 12 Laendler, D. 790 (1823). Pianist Ya-Fei Chuang gave the set a first-rate reading, with a firm command of the notes, very subtle management of the dynamics, and a strong but flexible grounding in the music's rhythmic foundations.

As soon as the main theme of the opening movement of Schubert's Quintet in C Major, D. 956 (1828) arrived, that beguilingly lyrical duet of the two cellos, I realized with a start that this was first live performance of the work I'd ever heard. It's really true, you know: no recording can pull you into the music the way a first-rate live performance does, and this was a stunning confirmation of that tenet. It's a monumental piece: the great Viennese master seemed to need about 40 minutes to unfold each of his final works.

Violinists Rose Mary Harbison and Timothy Summers, violist Joan Ellersick, and cellists Rhonda Rider and David Russell each brought to the performance a unique voice, yet melded into a single character and expression according to the very highest ideals of chamber-music playing. Technically, the piece is very, very demanding: not only are there a lot of notes, but each line is fully exposed, even in the softest non-solo passages. Although all four movements offered good reasons to sigh and be amazed by Schubert's endless joys, it was for me somehow the Trio of the Scherzo that went beyond marvel into miracle.

The second half was given over to Mozart, whose incomparable genius shone as brightly in the delightful four-hand work, the Fantasy, K. 608 (1791), gorgeously played by pianists Ya-Fei Chuang and Robert Levin, as in the Piano Concerto in E-Flat Major, K. 449 (1784), performed as a piano quartet by Levin, Summers, Harbison, Ellersick and Rider. Levin is, well, out there! He's one of the great experts of Mozart playing, maybe the expert in our day, renowned for his recordings on early pianos of the Mozart concertos, many of which I know well. So it was something of a revelation to hear him play the modern behemoth by Steinway with such at-home elan. This concerto is particularly brilliant in its outer movements, and as though the notated flashiness were not enough, Levin specializes in improvised cadenzas, fresh every time, made up on the spot. It's breathtaking, and he does it quite in the style of Mozart. As you might expect, the slow movement is where musicians really get to let fly with lyrical and emotive elements, and Levin did not miss a single opportunity for nuance.

The three-concert festival is dedicated to the memory of Rudolf Kolisch, and I must add that Rose Mary Harbison's violin playing reminded me as no other violinist ever has of that great artist's sound and character; I can think of no higher compliment to any musician than that.

The third and final concert, to be held at the Festival Barn (4037 Hwy. 19, DeForest) on Sunday, Sept. 1, features music by Sessions, Schubert, and Harbison.

Isthmus, August, 1996
Copyright 1996 Jess Anderson

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