Sunday, July 20, 2014

Old forms, new festivals: Chamber Music Fest Rheinhessen

One of the things I love about this region is that there always seems to be room for another music festival. The Chamber Music Fest Rheinhessen was founded by the Flex Ensemble, a young quartet that entrepreneurially set out to create this opportunity. The weekend included masterclasses, children's concerts, and genre-crossing collaborations with other artists; Friday's opening concert, which I attended, was an evening of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century piano quartets. I never feel as though I hear enough live chamber music, and it was a treat to hear a vigorous young ensemble playing it in an assembly hall packed with music professionals and community members ranging from elderly couples to young families.

I confess that, as I looked up train connections, I wondered what had brought this festival to the less-than-central town of Nieder Olm, but it turned out that the venue itself--a large, parquet-floored hall with paintings of the Rhine, carved city crests, and, significantly, a grand piano--had served as the inspiration for the event. Festival organizer Jens Klaassen introduced the enterprising Flex Ensemble with scarcely less enthusiasm than that with which they placed. Among the most impressive qualities of the ensemble (founded only in 2012) was their cohesion; they worked together confidently and fluidly. They gave the opening Mozart (KV 493) with a full-bodied and unusually romantic sound. I might have preferred more lightness, but I think the acoustics were in part responsible for a surprising prolongation of notes. The ensemble did play elegantly, and with good phrasing in the larghetto movement, especially, with fine dialogue developed between piano and strings. The near-hectic conclusion was not without humor, and the conclusion of the quartet was energetic without feeling rushed.

 Any composer following Mozart on a program is at a disadvantage, but the late romanticism of Josef Suk's 1891 piano quartet in A minor seemed a better fit for the Flex Ensemble's sound. The robust warmth of the strings in the opening movement yielded to the piano's shining in the adagio (in which I, at least, heard reminiscences of Tchaikovsky.) One of the most effective moments was one of silence, when the players allowed a progression to hang tantalizingly unfinished before the cello rounded it off, bringing it back to the melody of the opening as elegiac monody. The challenges of complex timing were handled well. Fauré's first piano quartet, given after the interval, was perhaps the most successfully given piece of the night. The Flex Ensemble achieved elegant nuance in tempo and dynamics, met the challenges of  Fauré's timing admirably, and gave the delicately twining melodies a pleasing lightness. (Note: my failure to single out the individual musicians is neither coyness nor reservation, but a reflection of a fact that the group chose to be a namelessly unified ensemble in the program.) The grace and energy with which they rounded off the evening was the more admirable, in my eyes, for being maintained in an atmosphere of near-stifling warmth. The temperatures were matched by the seductions of their pleasingly impudent Piazzolla encore, an appetite-whetter for further

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