Archive for December, 2006

VERMEER QUARTET reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, December 8th, 2006

December 7, 2006
Music Toronto Presents the Vermeer Quartet
Jane Mallett Theatre

Despite a perfunctory start to their valedictory concert in Toronto, the men of the Vermeer managed to intrigue this savvy Music Toronto audience with a program of early Schubert, mature Mendelssohn, signature Shostakovich.

Schubert composed his E flat quartet, D.87 when he was a 16 year old seminarian, and he performed it at home with his family. The work exhibits a cheerfulness that looks back to Haydn, some sweet melancholy passages in the adagio modeled on Mozart (uttered lyrically by Marc Johnson’s cello). The uneven phrasing and arrested tempos in which the Vermeer wisely hold open the silent spaces showcase the composer’s emergent maturity.

To this ear, the pace of the first two movements seemed draggy and mechanical; the gravelly voice of Richard Young’s viola perplexed. However, the ensemble came together by the finale with its perky recapitulation. One took away the sense of a cleanly sculpted work, well constructed along simple lines, unspoiled in temper, yet connected to awareness of the weight that would soon descend on Schubert’s short life.

Shostakovich’s 8th quartet in C Minor invokes the weight of the world and makes it sing a carefree song before subsiding into a soft dark silence. Themes from the composer’s life that enter into the composition include a visit to the bombed out ruins of Dresden in 1960, a thwarted suicide attempt that pointed to the composer’s continuing suppression by Stalin, and Shostakovich’s irrepressible urge to speak out.

Launched by a dramatically quiet cello solo, the notes of Shostakovich’s DSCH signature develop, albeit a bit slowly, from a transfixingly lovely melody into a hectic, dissonant Gypsy dance theme. From this point onward, the Vermeer bond into a cuttingly clear singing voice: Shmuel Ashkenasi’s fiddle is irreverent; the viola is elegiac–raw with a purpose–before melting into dark caramel tones towards the close. Mathias Tacke’s tender-sweet bowing insinuates like vines around the cello’s riveting groans, reminding us that the business of art is to look into the face of suffering and find there inspiration to sing and dance as long as there is life.

Blissful is the word for the period of Mendelssohn’s life when he composed the Quartet in E Minor, Op. 44, No. 2. In 1836, at the age of 27, Mendelssohn occupied the front rank of German musicians, had secured his international fame, and for the next four years, presided over the brilliant concert life of Leipzig. Mendelssohn took a bit of springtime in the Schwartzwald, during his honeymoon, to compose this quartet.


The work is full of mid-summer dreaming
combined with Mendelssohn’s inside knowledge of the violin and viola. There is hectic excitement and sweet reflection in the first movement–Wordsworthian ‘emotion recollected in tranquility.’ The perky ‘scherzo’ is animated by the cello’s pizzicato, so sexy, it sketched a smile onto the cellist. A theme in the ‘andante’ played romantically and sweet on Mathias Tacke’s violin so prefigured, in a good way, the voice of Adriana Caselotti singing “Some Day My Prince Will come” in Disney’s 1937 movie “Snow White”. Unaccountably, the closing sections of this quartet moved my mind westward and forward in time to the sweeping space of Aaron Copeland’s America, and in this space, one could hear ‘outsider’ music: the music of the troubadour, the lonesome rider, the wandering Jew.

On this note, we say farewell to the Vermeer, that quartet aptly named for the painter who enhanced his subjects with an intricate combination of proportion, colour and light.

Music Toronto ChamberMusic Downtown
Vermeer Quartet

MUSIC IN THE FAERIE QUEEN Reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Saturday, December 2nd, 2006

December 2, 2006
Tafelmusik Presents
Music in the Fairie Queen by Henry Purcell
Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre.

Henry Purcell (1659-95) “had a peculiar genius to express the energy of English words.” In this production we hear Purcell’s setting of words adapted from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by unknown authors and presented as five between-act Masques that comment on themes of the original play: poetry, sleep, love, nature, and marriage.

The force of this Tafelmusik production is to transport the audience into a realm of privilege and pleasure free from all care, as is summed up in the lines that conclude the third act:” No Life so Blessed as ours.” The magic of Purcell’s music is that it hints at the worldly cares that usually bring us down, but the hint is light, as if our feet only skim the tree tops of this world as the music carries us to a space where brilliance and humour abound, where trouble is only the fading memory of a dream.

The troubles we rise above, and let our passage over them be quick, are the troubles of love and marriage. They are the stuff of soap opera and potentially, of cop shows.

Hermia wants to marry Lysander but her father wants her to marry Demetrius. Her best friend Helena loves Demetrius. They all run away and chase each other in a forest ruled by the Fairie King and Queen, Oberon and Titania, who are locked in custody battle, in which Oberon gets the upper hand by drugging his wife, causing her to fall temporarily and inappropriately in love with a rustic clown. The clown, Bottom, delighted to be deluded, is co-producing a play in which thwarted lovers, like Romeo and Juliet, kill themselves. In the end, everyone awakes into a world where everyday the sun rises and sets on “A new Wedding-day, and …a new Nuptial night.”

The clowning aspect of the production is taken care of by Derek Boyes and Ann-Marie MacDonald in street clothes who recite passages from Shakespeare’s play in the voices of a range of characters from the bottom to the top of the social register. They contribute quite a lot of broadly sliced ham, which the audience seemed to love. The principle soloists, haute-contre Marc Molomot, bass-baritone Olivier Laquerre, and soprano Laurie Reviol perform Purcell’s technically demanding score with careful attention to nuances of feeling.

The Tafelmusik orchestra and chamber choir, directed by visiting conductor and harpsichordist Richard Egarr, convey the motivic and harmonic coherence of this piece in precise detail. Purcell’s slightly dissonant counterpoint comes across as a metaphor that holds the entire production in a clear light.

If I had a question, it was about English. I wonder about the convention that has singers stuck in emulating the exaggerated diction of bygone eras of the English stage. To these ears, it sounded as ‘funny’ as Anne-Marie MacDonald playing Peter Quince in her Ottawa-valley farm boy voice.