Stunning music of the war years at I-House

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Gerald Rizzer, pianist and founder of the Chicago Ensemble
The Chicago Ensemble has been offering chamber music recitals at the University of Chicago’s International House for decades. In fact, on Sunday it completed its 40th year of concerts here in Hyde Park with a fascinating program of works written by European composers during World War II.

Gerald Rizzer founded the Chicago Ensemble as a young man. Still energetic while grey at the temples, the pianist continues as the group’s undisputed leader. He selects the music for every concert and introduces each piece with a brief spoken introduction. He can be found before the concert, at the intermission, and after it, wandering through the audience talking to friends as well as new audience members, serving as ambassador to the music as well as the ensemble. His audience is virtually always in a good mood, even before the music starts, thanks to the tasty buffet of cheeses, meats, fruit, and cookies -as well as coffee and wine -which generously accompany every concert.

On Sunday the Ensemble drew a good-sized audience to I-House, in spite of being Mother’s Day. The program, entitled “Masterpieces of the War Years”, opened with the 1939 Sonata for violin and piano by Paul Hindemith. Rizzer’s introduction explained how the composer was forced to leave Europe and later landed a job at Yale, where Rizzer himself studied with him as an undergraduate.

Joining Rizzer for the performance was violinist Olga Kaler. She brought assured playing to the brief opening movement. Both violin and piano were crisp and convincing for the march-like theme.

The slow central section had quiet, pleasing sound from the violin and clear articulation from the keyboard. The heart of the sonata is the final movement. The complex, three-themed fugue was spun out with care, with each major melody knit together beautifully.

The Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu also left war-torn Europe for America, where he became very fruitful (at one point composing five symphonies in the course of only four years).

Rizzer and cellist Steven Sigurdson took on Martinu’s 1941 Sonata No. 2. There was passion from the cello from the outset while the piano featured repeated ascending passages with various moods, from nearly-cheeky to clearly urgent.

The middle movement began with somber piano followed by a gorgeous lament from Sigurdson, full of poignant playing. The piano solo saw Rizzer begin softly but effectively build up to great force.

The concluding Allegro was characterized by well punctuated phrases and expressive music performed with intensity.

After the intermission all three players joined forces for a famous work by Shostakovich. The 1945 Trio in E Minor features some of the composer’s most interesting and compelling music. Rizzer explained that the true dedicatees of the piece were the Jews of Europe.
The opening high harmonics from the cello were haunting and the subsequent violin lines cold and distant, clearly creating a distinct mood. This gave way to more amiable music but the composer’s astringent touches were always present.

The Allegro featured music with harsh effects the players rendered with ease. At times the brash music was nearly wild. In the Largo, Rizzer’s piano set the stage while Kaler’s violin sang quietly and Sigurdson’s cello intoned persuasively.

The final movement, characterized by a melody clearly inflected with the sounds of Jewish folk music, was given power by the trio. Rizzer introduced the theme and the trio worked through the development of the ideas with rigor. A dance of death emerged from the musical mosaic, effective and terrifying. The performance was fluid and gripping and elicited great applause from the appreciative audience.

To keep track of the Chicago Ensemble’s upcoming 41st season, visit their website at thechicagoensemble.org.