Scharoun Ensemble @ Koerner Hall reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, March 11, 2011. Koerner Hall, Toronto.

Sonic alert: A performance by eight chairs of the Berliner Philharmoniker, arguably the world’s best orchestra. What do you get? Total relaxation and thrilling alerts. The tutti chords that open Mozart’s exquisite Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in A major, K. 581 are transparent, but you can hear the viola as if it were playing solo. You might be surprised to notice in the scherzo of Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat major, Opus 20, that the colour-tones of the first violin and the bassoon are identical. You may never have heard winds played so softly as they do in a passage towards the end of the Septet.  In general, what you get with this ensemble are complex harmonies articulated as clearly as anatomical drawings of nerves pulsing beneath a satiny skin.

The program is lighthearted music that has always been popular.  Beethoven had occasion to remark that his Septet’s popularity eclipsed what he estimated were his more deserving compositions. The lilting themes and rhythmic poetry of Dvorak’s Czech Suite  in D Major, Op. 39 are formed into a sequence of popular dances (including a ‘Polka’ and a ‘Mazurka’). Dvorak based the Suite  on classic Bohemian folk songs, of which the composer Leon Janåcek has said “(they) were as if he had taken them from my heart.”

The Clarinet Quintet in A, one of Mozart’s most popular chamber works, has the same golden glow and mellow warmth as his opera Cosi fan tutte, commissioned in the same year, 1789, by Emperor Joseph II. Mozart intended his cast of five instruments to sing like vocalists as they flow with a sure sense of drama through what amount to solo arias, duets, dances and choruses. And the Scharoun make it so.

Popular  music, lighthearted music, means the music relaxes you rather than it puts you into a state of high alert for plumbing depths or gathering nuances. With an ensemble of the quality we experienced this evening,  you can just lay back, and the fine discriminations come along by themselves like invited guests. For example, in 50 years of listening to the The Clarinet Quintet in A, last night, during the larghetto,  was the first and only time I felt as if I were lifted out of my body. That was pretty fine.

It remains only to note some passages of astonishing solo work: Aleksandr Ivic’s cadenza in the finale of the Mozart;  Markus Weidmann’s bassoon in the 2nd movement of the Dvorak; Stefan De Leval Jezierski’s horn in the third movement of the Beethoven creating a stereoscopic perspective of distance; and Alexander Bader’s clarinet, so obviously perfect in the Mozart, also thrilled in fleeting duets with bassoon and with Peter Riegelbauer’s double bass in the opening dances of the Dvorak. In this particular work, the Scharoun Ensemble as a whole brought to me a unique impression of all nature singing in chorus.

One more instrument that performs sonic marvels needs to be mentioned: Koerner Hall. A few weeks ago, Ann Sofie von Otter told us we were lucky people to have such a hall. Too right! And this evening, if we ever needed a repeat of the lesson that there is an unbridgeable gap between listening to music on the finest sound system and listening to it live, the Scharoon Ensemble in Koerner Hall made that lesson live.

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