Sunday,March 30,2008,Walter Hall, Toronto
It is a rare day and a good day when you get to hear an entire concert based on two of that Cinderella of instruments, the viola. The first piece was a world premiere entitled “Encounter for Two Violas” composed by the eminent pianist Anton Kuerti, husband of the late Kristine Bogyo, whose legacy Kristine’s Kompanions honour.
Kuerti’s short composition is a strong-themed dialogue, lyrical in style; its wistful sadness is enriched by the timbre of viola and a hint of Bartokian complexity. The performance by Sharon Wei and her fiancé Scott St. John was marked by an intense concentration on detail and moments where a relaxed pleasure flared.
At the beginning of this Mooredale Concert season, Mr. Kuerti as Artistic Director promised to give ‘his day on the stage’ to “Louis Spohr, who during the 19th century was considered one of the 10 greatest composers of all time.” Spohr, who was also a conductor, is now often remembered as the man who said that the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was “so monstrous and tasteless and, in its grasp of Schiller’s Ode, so trivial that I cannot understand how a genius like Beethoven could have written it.” Forget about it.
Kristine’s Kompanions, with Olivier Thouin leading as first violin, gave a tender and passionate account of Spohr’s Grande Quintetto in G Major Op.33, No, 2. The composition follows Mozart’s innovation of finding room for a second viola’s voice, especially in the exposition of the scherzo. His themes and arrangements are immediately pleasing if slightly predictable, the exception being the closing Allegro which is a bit more melancholy than the previous parts and is strongly marked by a Spanish rhythm boldly and beautifully defined by the cello of Chris Costanza (substituting for Winona Zelenka).
Costanza’s contribution in punctuating tempos with his subtle pizzicatos stands out in my mind. Strongest among my impressions is the leadership of Olivier Thouin who was so visibly responsive to the sensuality of the music and alive to transitions of mood and tempo. His work seemed to provide shadings of colour and grading of tempo that were much appreciated.
Thouin yielded first chair to Erika Raum for the afternoon’s highlight: Mozart’s String Quintet in G Minor, K. 516. Mozart’s writing relies on the first violin to hold interpretation together during a performance, and Ms. Raum’s precise, sparkling, somewhat feisty energy kept the harmonic complexity of this late Mozart piece poised while it explored a range of deep and often dark feelings.
The mood of the opening Allegro is sorrowful and uneasy, built of sighs, gasps and a descending melodic line that remains plaintive even at the conclusion. The first violin is remarkably sensitive to the ‘piano’ passages particularly during the second theme. Costanza’s cello and the violas deepen the chiaroscuro duskiness. The brief Menuetto is heavy-footed, slowed by strong rhythmic third beat chords marked by the cello. The Adagio, though sombre, brightens with an imitative dialogue between Raum and Costanza and some offbeat comments by Wei’s viola. The closing Allegro picks up the pace and Ms. Raum leads the ensemble into a welcome access of the gaiety we depend on Mozart to provide.