Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Czech Nonet

It was an embarrassment of riches last night in Vancouver – the opera presented their second performance of La Bohème, Paul Lewis played a recital of late Schubert sonatas, and the Friends of Chamber Music presented the Czech Nonet in a programme of Wagner, Prokofiev, and Dvořák.

Formed in 1924, the nine players of the Czech Nonet, a combination of wind and string players, play a wide array of repertoire, from the Baroque to the 20th century. Of great interest to me was their performance of Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, one of the composer’s most lovable and loving works. I had only heard the work performed by a full orchestra, and so I was very curious to hear this scaled-down version of the piece (the original score was scored for 13 players.)

Siegfried Idyll was beautifully executed by the Nonet. However, I do have a quibble with extremely slow tempo they set for the opening which, to me, went against Wagner’s marking of bewegt – lively, or with motion, roughly translated. For me, the tempo of a piece of music is of secondary importance, as long as the players can maintain the tension within the music. In this case, however, the extremely leisurely opening tempo makes the tempo relationship with the other sections irrelevant. Shortly after the opening, Wagner writes Noch mehr zurückhaltend – still more holding back, which became difficult since the opening tempo was already so “held back.” I feel that Wagner is warning us against the danger of the piece becoming too static, since he fills the pages of this relatively short work with instructions in tempo changes. Only in the final bars did Wagner use the word langsamer – slower. Again, this becomes less meaningful since the opening bars were already played so slowly.

Sergei Prokofiev’s Quintet in A Minor for Oboe, Clarinet, Violin, Viola, and Bass, Op. 39 shows the composer at his sardonic best. To me, the sense of humour found in this work is almost an extension of the black humour one finds in the scherzo movements of Mahler symphonies; bits of the writing for winds even reminds me of Webern. I remember the delight Prokofiev took in imagining how the players look when they play certain passages. I think the composer would have been pleased and tickled by the performance last night. The players obviously relished the many technical and musical challenges the work offers, and brought out the sarcasm and humour that is inherent in every one of the six-movement work.

After the interval, the entire ensemble returned and essayed Antonin Dvořák’s Serenade in D Minor for winds, cello and double bass, Op. 44. According to the programme notes, Brahms was impressed enough with the work to have recommended it to his friend Joseph Joachim. The charm of the piece is that it does not pretend to be more than what it is – a simple but beautiful piece of music that aims to delight. From the opening march, reminiscent of Mozart’s wind serenades and Schubert’s German dances to the jubilant finale, the players conveyed their love for the score, and performed it with all charm and gusto. The slow movement, marked Andante con moto, brought out especially ravishing playing from the wind instrumentalists.

Considering all the musical events that were available last evening, the concert had a fairly good house. In this difficult economic climate, I do hope that the Friends of Chamber Music, now in their 65th season, will continue to bring Vancouver audiences this purest form of music making.

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