American Chamber Players’ soothing program comes with a punch

June 10, 2012

It was, for the most part, warm breezes and dappled sunshine at the Kreeger Museum on Friday evening, when the American Chamber Players opened this year’s June Chamber Festival with a program that seemed designed to soothe Washington’s troubled brows. But amid the lilting Debussy and cheerful Brahms appeared one of the darkest, most chilling works in the chamber music repertoire, which received such a stunning performance that it turned what might have been just an entertaining evening into a must-hear musical event.

The concert opened innocuously enough. Anna Stoytcheva and Reiko Uchida delivered a lively, finely polished reading of Debussy’s “Petite Suite” in its original four-hand piano version — a colorful and impressionistic work that never fails to delight. The Kreeger may be the perfect place to hear Debussy’s music, which seems completely at home in the museum’s modern-but-not-too-scary art collection, with its wall-to-wall Picassos and sensuous Henry Moores. The “Petite Suite” made a smile-inducing start to the evening.

But into the happy glow marched violinist Joanna Maurer. Looking a bit as if she were setting off to war, Maurer barely glanced at the audience before launching into Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 1 in F Minor. Festival director Miles Hoffman had introduced the piece as “not exactly a laugh riot,” which understates the case: It’s more like staring into an open grave, in the middle of winter, at 3 in the morning. And Maurer (with Stoytcheva at the piano) played it brilliantly in an utterly committed performance that probed relentlessly into the savage, ravaged edges of human experience. It wasn’t an easy listen; devastation runs through this music, and Maurer made no attempt to prettify it. But it was an extraordinary performance. She was playing for keeps, and it showed.

The rest of the evening retreated to more comfortable ground. Hoffman, accompanied by Uchida, turned in an account of Brahms’s amiable Sonata in E-flat for viola and piano, Op. 120, No. 2, that didn’t ruffle any feathers, and Stoytcheva joined Uchida for Schubert’s four-handed “Fantasy” in F Minor, D. 940. The two pianists have a tight rapport and superb technique, but they stayed close to the surface of this extraordinary work, skating over its mysteries as if reluctant to dig too deep.

Brookes is a freelance writer.

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