The Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival has visited us often during the last decade, always via the Mozarteum and at the Colón. Apart from its quality, which makes them welcome, there is (I believe) another reason for this frequency: programmes are centered around pianist Elena Bashkirova, founder of the group, who happens to be Daniel Barenboim´s wife. And of course Barenboim is doing a yearly festival of his own at the Colón, always at the end of July and the first days of August, bringing along his orchestra and their son, violinist Michael Barenboim.
True, this year there´s a considerable gap in time between her appearance and the Barenboims´ and I don´t know her calendar, so she may play here and return accompanying offstage her family. Anyway, the pattern exists.
Bashkirova is the daughter of the eminent Russian pianist Dmitri Bashkirov and she is one of the positive artists of her generation, with a vast high-level career. She founded the Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival in 1998 and has been since then her Artistic Directress. It is a seasonal Festival with changing personnel offering their talent during some weeks, and -as in this case- it can be itinerant. Jerusalem unites them for a time; however, it isn´t an Israelite group but a cosmopolitan one. It follows that no visit resembles the earlier one.
Semantically it seems to me that their appellation is equivocal, for the term Festival implies a series of events, not an isolated concert, but as they change chameleon-like, there´s no such thing with this ensemble as a steady trio, quartet or quintet; what matters, though, is what they bring to us. In this instance, it was a clever and intelligent combination of textures between piano, clarinet, violin and cello.
The other players were Chen Halevi, clarinet, from Israel; Mihaela Martin, violin, Romanian; and Frans Helmerson, cello, Swedish. Two of them (the strings, of course) are part of the Michelangelo Quartet. All have wide experience in chamber music.
The programme was long (about a hundred minutes) and valid, placing two great Twentieth Century composers (Hindemith and Bartók) between two masters of yore, Beethoven and Schubert. Beethoven´s Trio Op.ll is the only for clarinet, cello and piano; he wrote it in 1797, at a time when the creator was young (27), in good health, considered one of the best pianists of his time and a brilliant composer. The music is still more Classicist than early Romantic; in those 20 minutes there are a joyful and inventive first movement, a beautifully melodic Adagio, and a Finale based on the tune of a vocal Trio from a Joseph Weigl opera, much liked at the time ("L´amor marinaro") where Beethoven shows his ability in the Theme and Variations form. That Weigl melody was so popular that it became a "Gassenhauer" (a street song), and that´s the nickname of this Trio.
Bashkirova´s sovereign command of the piano was evident throughout, as well as her sense of style and crystalline touch. Halevi proved to be a virtuoso, with firm attack of high notes, control of dynamics and great fluidity in the difficult runs. Helmerson was uneven, with sensitive and songful arches of melody, but also some glaring mistakes.
Unfortunately Hindemith isn´t trendy nowadays; this important composer is shamefully neglected, so I was glad to get to know his Quartet for the unlikely combination of clarinet, violin, cello and piano, written in 1938 at the transitional time of his life when he was preparing his exile to Switzerland (Hitler had denounced his art as "degenerate"!), whilst in Zurich all concerned were rehearsing the première of his mighty opera "Mathis the Painter" (still not premièred here...). Hindemith was amazing in another sense: he was a professional violinist and violist but also played passably nine other instruments, and he composed sonatas for tuba and viola d´amore!
After an iconoclastic youth, at 43 he returned to more traditional tonality and counterpoint, as the closely argued three-movement, 30-minute quartet we heard demonstrated. The four recordings I found in my catalogue are in small labels hard to find, so there was need for rather fierce concentration to absorb the powerful craftsmanship of the music. I take it on faith that we were given a responsible reading, for I have no score.
In 1940 Bartók also was an exile, but in New York. Benny Goodman liked his music and asked for two fast pieces to record; Bartók´s friend, violinist Joseph Szigeti, joined the project; the composer added a third movement, and "Contrasts" was born, in fact a Trio. Their recording is the historic reference. A recruiting dance (Verbunkos) is followed by "Repose" (slow) and crowned by a vibrant "Sebes" of Romanian influence. After correct but tame performances of the first two pieces, the interpretation became fiery in the third, responding to the pungent rhythms (splendid the clarinettist).
Schubert´s marvelous First Trio for piano and strings is a work of full maturity, which means that he was 30 (he died one year later...). The reading was musical and in good taste, but it lacked energy; Schubert isn´t Brahms; however, to play it at the Colón you need ampler volume and more accent. The violinist´s tone is sweet and true, but with no bite when needed, and the cellist was again better in ample melodies than in demanding moments. The pianist was by far the most reliable member.
For Buenos Aires Herald