Thinking Small, but Providing Big Rewards

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 21, 2006

It must be wonderfully liberating for members of an orchestra to get together and play chamber music. For once, there is no need to obey the commands of some Olympian (or not-so-Olympian) figure on a podium. Instead, decisions are arrived at more or less democratically, along the lines of Goethe's famous definition of chamber music as a "discourse between reasonable individuals."

On Sunday afternoon at the Terrace Theater, five leading members of the National Symphony Orchestra joined forces to play a concert as the Kennedy Center Chamber Players. It was a beautiful program, one fully worth staying inside for on a cool day, containing two vast works that are as much loved by the general public as they are esteemed by musicians.

Mozart's Divertimento in E-flat (K. 563) -- universally hailed as the greatest of all string trios -- began the program. The soloists were concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef, principal violist Daniel Foster and principal cellist David Hardy. This is music meant not only to be played but to be played with ; its six movements are suffused with an autumnal radiance that is like nothing else in the repertory.

It is perhaps frivolous to choose "favorites" among such riches, but I'm always especially taken by the fourth movement, which begins as a tipsy, comical arm-in-arm jaunt (it would make a terrific soundtrack to a Chaplin film), then grows in intensity until it explodes into a searing chorale melody for viola that might have been written by Bach, yet is decorated by racing, happy filigree for cello and violin that is purest Mozart. I admired Bar-Josef's high, plangent sweetness, Hardy's steady, almost jazzy, bass plunks, and the marvelous way Foster slid in and out of everybody else's range, making them his own.

Even better in some ways was Beethoven's Trio No. 7 in B-flat (Op. 97, "Archduke"), played by Hardy, pianist Lambert Orkis and violinist Marissa Regni. This is a very difficult combination of instruments to write for -- the violin and the piano have a tendency to overpower the cellist -- and Beethoven was, of course, virtually deaf by the time he created this work in 1811. Still, the musical rewards are wonderful and Orkis managed to play both softly and firmly. And so, even with the top of the piano open, there were fewer level problems than in any performance of this music I've heard.

The differences between the two violinists were instructive. Bar-Josef has a tendency to take the lead in most of what she plays: She is, after all, the NSO's concertmaster, and one occasionally feels that she is trying to turn her performances into concertos. There is a long and honorable tradition of this sort of playing -- listen to the chamber recordings of Jascha Heifetz, for example -- but I found Regni somewhat more collegial in her approach. Put another way, the Mozart seemed a happy competition between equals; the Beethoven was a unified statement, signed jointly. But both were exciting performances of great music, and one left the Terrace Theater refreshed.

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