An afternoon of Schubert and Schumann

Gerald Rizzer (piano) and Michelle Areyzaga (soprano) at International House
(Photo by Lucy Ann Werner)

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

A strong foursome represented the Chicago Ensemble for a Sunday afternoon of chamber music at International House, and the results were splendid. Gerald Rizzer, the founder of the ensemble as well as its artistic director and pianist, was joined on stage by violinist Jaime Gorgojo (making his Chicago Ensemble debut), cellist Andrew Snow, and soprano Michelle Areyzaga.

Areyzaga has sung frequently with the ensemble, and the rapport she and Rizzer share is excellent. Her two sections of the concert featured songs with piano accompaniment, and Areyzaga and Rizzer were up to their usual high standard of musicianship.

In a set of songs by Schubert, the pair offered interpretations that charmed and performances that burst with musical acuity. “An die Laute” (“To the Lute”) had pert and pretty piano and robust singing with earthy tone. Areyzaga took the lyrics by Johann Friedrich Rochlitz and made us envious of the lute. The song is about a woman singing quietly to her lute about how she loves a man and hopes her song will reach him via the gentle breezes, the way the fragrance of flowers would find him were he sitting at his open window.

The final three songs in the set were all to texts by Goethe. First, “Lied der Mignon” (“Mignon’s Song”), was rendered with rounded tone and beautifully blooming phrases by Areyzaga. She built to a potent climax with Rizzer providing excellent emphasis.

“Aug dem See” (At the Sea”) highlighted her fine storytelling skills while Rizzer offered fluidity and musical waves. “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (“Margaret at the Spinning Wheel”) was performed with urgency. The yearning and despair were palpable and the piano was fully supportive in its agitation and sense of desire.

The second set of songs were by Schumann. Areyzaga brought delicate singing to “Der Nussbaum” (“The Nut Tree”), where she landed the highest notes with grace and gentleness. Rizzer’s piano cloaked her in security.

“Du bist wie eine Blume” (“You are like a flower”) was pleasing, and the soprano had just the right intensity as she prayed that God keep her loved one “pure, lovely and sweet.”

The set closed with “Widmung” (“Dedication”) which was given considerable force by the duo. They were energetic yet noble and both performed with the kind of dedication the song called for.

The balance of the concert was made up of two piano trios, one for each of the featured composers. For Schumann’s Trio 9 No. 2 in F Major, op. 80, Rizzer, Gorgojo, and Snow joined to create intriguing drama. The opening movement had big, full sound and some sweet moments. The wistful melody of the second movement was gorgeously played. This was followed by contemplative playing featuring good color. The final movement was rhythmically pert and had an effervescent conclusion.

The concert closed with the Trio No. 1 in B-flat Major by Schubert. Gorgojo’s violin had the sweetest and most compelling sound of the afternoon in the opening Allegro. All the players were adept with the propulsive theme and they expertly passed the music from one player to the next.

The andante’s memorable main melody gleamed as the trio played with hushed energy and the piano had particularly bright and engaging sound. The Scherzo featured dance-like music and had kitten-like animation: it was energetic, playful, and fun.

The players offered admirable underlining to the emphatic music in the closing Rondo. Snow’s cello provided a fine anchor while Rizzer’s piano was nimble.

As always, the concert featured spoken introductions before each piece by Rizzer and a pre-concert and intermission reception with wine and cheese, coffee and cookies, and other wonderful nibbles.

The next Chicago Ensemble concert is this Saturday at 4 p.m. at PianoForte (1335 S. Michigan Ave.) in the South Loop. It is this season’s second in the ensemble’s “Discover America” series. This concert series features new music by living composers, all selected by Rizzer from hundreds of entries from around the world. (The contest was begun in 1992, on the 500th anniversary of the voyage of Columbus, and was then named “Discover America” because only American composers were considered. While composers from around the world now participate, the original name has stuck.)

Saturday’s program will have music for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano and features the work of composers Matthew Browne, Roger Zare, Alexander Timofeev, Joyce Wai-chung Tang, and Luzia von Wyl.

For more information, visit thechicagoensemble.org.