Spunky, sparkling quintets

Classical Music Critic

The Chicago Ensemble is in its 37th season of presenting chamber music to Hyde Park audiences. One of the keys to its success is the programming of infrequently heard, oft-times unknown musical works. Artistic director Gerald Rizzer (also one of the founders of the group and its pianist) has a keen ear and a knack for finding interesting and worthy music and putting it in the hands of able colleagues. Two Sundays ago at International House, 1414 E. 59th St., was yet another splendid example of what the Chicago Ensemble does so well.

The highlights of the concert were two 20th century quintets. The first half of the afternoon was anchored by Walter Piston’s 1949 quintet for string quartet and piano in three movements. It opened with lots of moving parts, expertly articulated by the players, along with Rizzer’s frisky piano. The strings (Mathias Tacke and Steven Boe, violins; Paul Vanderwerf, viola; Andrew Snow, cello) were adept with a dense section of brooding music that slowly built to a fiery conclusion. The slow middle movement was expressive and put me in mind of great daubs of color, each phrase changing the hue slightly as Piston’s music meandered through fascinating thickets. The finale was bracing and brisk, with Tacke offering a memorable violin melody at the beginning, and then melting into the ensemble. The work’s zingy conclusion was pleasing.

The second half of the program was dominated by another rarely heard work: Frank Bridge’s 1912 quintet for the same instrumentation, this time with Boe serving as first violin. The opening adagio at times put you in mind of Brahms, and the scene-setting solo by violist Vanderwerf was splendid, leading into an impassioned section played expertly by Boe. Also notable was the feathery piano by Rizzer, offering an impressionistic quality.

As a whole, the playing was transparent and displayed a high level of ensemble work. The musicians displayed elegance and graciousness, and kept the audience at attention.

The rest of the program featured music for voice. Mezzo-soprano Stacy Eckert at times seemed to be forcing the pace of the aria “Leg ich mich spate” from Bach’s cantata no. 97, “In allen meinen Taten.” The strings were attractive, if not always entirely clear, while the piano provided solid accompaniment.

Far more successful was the “Chanson perpetuelle” by Ernest Chausson. The performance found the beauty in the music, with Eckert offering a relaxed and moving account. Rizzer’s piano deftly emphasized the important offbeat notes and the string players each had a chance to make a point, and all did so effectively. Cellist Snow was particularly resonant.
“Siete Canciones populares Españolas” by Manuel de Falla, for mezzo and piano, was the highlight of the vocal performances. While Eckert opened with some brittleness, her sound quickly warmed. She was able to convey the sad yet enigmatic text of “Asturiana,” was pleasingly playful in “Jota” and was understated in “Canción.” She was at the height of her powers in the last song, “Polo,” where she was effective in expressing the sorrow and anger of a failed love affair.
Rizzer accompanied her with a well-accented piano. I particularly enjoyed the sound reminiscent of trotting along cobblestones in “Sequedilla murciana.”

The next Chicago Ensemble performance in Hyde Park is at I-House on April 27. The concert begins at 6:30 p.m. (later than usual) and features music for flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano. On the program is music by Reger, Beethoven, Yedidia and Walton.

The Chicago Ensemble has also recently released its latest CD, with the less-than-sexy title, “Highlights: 2009 – 2012 Seasons.” This two CD set has 27 tracks, mostly single movement extracts from larger works, all of which were recorded either at I-House or the Fourth Presbyterian Church, in concert. A wide range of composers and styles are represented, including pieces by Scarlatti, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Bruch, Brahms, Reinecke, Debussy, Fauré, Piston, Fine and Tucker. One of my favorites on this CD is soprano Michelle Areyzaga performing “Your eyën two will slay me suddenly” by Ralph Vaughn Williams. Sadly, there are no liner notes.

This CD is available for purchase ($30) at Chicago Ensemble performances or online at thechicagoensemble.org. It is also offered for free to patrons who make a donation of $200 or more.