Radiant Schubert Quintets

Monday, March 12, 2007

A capacity audience was treated to some extraordinary musicmaking at the Austrian Embassy on Friday night. Two quintets of Franz Schubert, some of the most exquisite chamber music ever written, made up the program: The Piano Quintet in A, D. 667 ( the "Trout"), which combines the piano with a violin, viola, cello and bass; and the String Quintet in C, D. 956, which adds a second cello to the traditional quartet group: two violins, viola and cello. Though these quintets "say" quite different things, both reach beyond the stratosphere, as did the performances heard Friday.

For the "Trout," the acclaimed pianist Ann Schein joined with violinist Earl Carlyss (her husband, long a Juilliard Quartet member), violist Michael Stepniak, cellist Thomas Kraines and bassist John Patitucci. Baritone Jerome Barry introduced the piece with a sensitive version of Schubert's own song "The Trout" at the heart of this quintet. Presenting this song first set that ur-Viennese mood of tragic irony that courses through so much of Schubert's music. While not disturbing this music's dark undercurrents, the performers' radiant artistry summoned the element of frothy lyrical elation that shines through the pathos.

The rapture continued after intermission with Schubert's String Quintet, offered by Carlyss, Stepniak, Kraines, violinist Peter Sirotin and cellist Fiona Thompson. Although written as the 31-year-old composer was dying, this music overwhelms with its sheer symphonic magnitude. And Friday's performance made that clear. Part of that overwhelming quality is the quintet's relentless yearning, which the musicians underlined as they stormed through Schubert's outrageously shifting harmonies born of grating dissonances that rage on to the final page; while the composer's seemingly random pauses made perfect sense by expertly timed ensemble playing. The concert was an Embassy Series event.

-- Cecelia Porter

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