Giorgio Koukl | 7 FEB 2021
This time presented in the beautiful venue of the Peachtree Road United Methodist Church of Atlanta, the musicians of the At;anta Chamber Players (violinists David Coucheron and Helen Hwaya Kim, violist Catherine Lynn, cellists Rainer Eudeikis and Brad Ritchie, clarinetists Alcides Rodriguez and pianist Elizabeth Pridgen) treated the public with a fine choice of some shorter Russian pieces. In the second part of the concert with the significant String Quintet by Franz Schubert — a choice which surely would have pleased even the most recalcitrant concertgoer.
The concert started with a short piece by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943). He wrote his first Trio élégiaque while 18 years old and still a student playing it the same year. The structure, quite surprisingly, is of one movement only. The “quasi marcia funebre” ending shares some similarities with the Piano Trio in A minor of Tchaikovsky. The piano part already bears all the signature qualities of a mature Rachmaninoff, with its palette of colors and technical difficulties.
Difficulties were dealt apparently without effort by all the musicians. I especially admired the muscular, neat, and precise piano technique of Ms. Pridgen in a score devilishly disseminated with diverse traps for the pianist. The final funeral march was played with great expressiveness and moving human participation.
The Three Pieces for Two Violins and Piano (1970) by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) followed. As explained in the excellent program notes written by Edmund Trafford, this music was initially composed, like so many in Mr. Shostakovich’s production, for the film and only subsequently arranged by Levon Atovmyan to help the composer in his continuous financial difficulties. Logically this music has nothing in common with the Schostakovich of, let’s say the Leningrad Symphony or the 24 preludes for the piano. This is Salonmusik at its best, and David Coucheron and Helen Hwaya Kim, together with Ms. Pridgen, delivered it in a splendid manner that would have been fully appreciated in any of the many elegant Vienna cafès.
Next, the musicians performed the Overture on Hebrew Themes in C Minor, Opus 34 by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953).
Although the composer never highly regarded this work (“I have written it down in one day and a half,” he sarcastically remarked), it is nonetheless today more frequently performed in its original form rather than in the transcription for a chamber orchestra. This is a relatively new trend due to the excellent recording made by Juilliard String Quartet and the pianist Yefim Bronfman in 1994. That would have pleased the composer, who was reluctant to produce the modified orchestral version. Said again with the typically sarcastic words of the composer: “I don’t understand what sort of obtuse people could have found it necessary to re-orchestrate it,” or even worse: “from the musical point of view, the only worthwhile part, if you please, is the final section… “
But let us not be confused by the composer’s often harsh words about his music. Overture on Hebrew Themes is a rare example of chamber music which includes clarinet, strings, and piano to be perfectly balanced between the different instruments. In this sense, maybe only Bartok and Martinů have done equally well.
The rendering by the Atlanta Chamber Players was excellent. They executed the dynamic range and difficult-to-reach timbral details with the ease only first-class musicians can hope to achieve. One must further underline the perfect contribution of clarinetist Alcides Rodriguez.
The String Quintet in C Major, D. 956 (Op. Posth. 163) was the last completed chamber work written by Franz Schubert (1797-1828). In mid-October of 1828 – just a few weeks after completing the Quintet – Schubert’s appetite disappeared. Weakened by tertiary syphilis and the mercury-based medications, then the only known remedy against syphilis, Schubert took to his bed with a high fever, almost certainly caused by a further typhoid infection. Schubert died at three o’clock in the afternoon on November 19, 1828.
It took many decades before this masterwork emerged from oblivion. Luckily it is today among the better-known works of the Austrian genius.
The Atlanta Chamber Players musicians gave us a splendid rendering, with an often stupendously original choice of tempi and rare timbral quality. Sometimes one could even get the illusion of a piano participating, which is not part of this work, as Ms. Pridgen briefly explained in her introductory words, referencing a typo in the program notes, where she was erroneously listed. A flawless succession of moods, wonderful melodies, and positive feelings.
Once again, the Atlanta Chamber Players delivered a high-quality example of how chamber music can be played and enjoyed. ■