The Auryn Quartet gave Schubert his due in three concerts over the weekend.
The Auryn Quartet gave Schubert his due in three concerts over the weekend. (By Manfred Essel)
Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Schubert, Schubert & Schubert Festival

Beethoven's younger contemporary, the Viennese composer Franz Schubert, lived only 31 years. Yet from his earliest works to his last he spoke a conflicted and soul-wrenching emotional language that never lets you go. This quality came fully to the surface with the three concerts presented over the weekend by the resident Auryn Quartet as part of the annual Schubert, Schubert & Schubert Festival -- now in its third decade -- at Georgetown University's Gaston Hall.

Introducing the opening concert on Friday, Austrian Ambassador Eva Nowotny said it perfectly: "Schubert's music expresses a profound existential ambivalence -- the conscious simultaneity of inescapable sorrow and enjoyment in beauty." And the Auryn probed the heart of this aesthetic in performances at once revelatory and inspiring, heading each concert with a Schubert work combined with one or two jewels by Brahms, Mozart, Schumann and Dvorak.

In a visceral version of Schubert's String Quartet, D. 87 (which he composed at 16), the Auryn sustained the first Allegro's tiny, agitated melodic motif as it was transmuted into a dance and then dissolved into the disturbed resignation of the Adagio, capping everything with a nuanced performance of the finale.

On Saturday, the young Russian pianist Polina Leschenko added her adventurous approach to the Auryn players (with Jens Oppermann switching from second to first violin) in Schubert's late Piano Trio, D. 929. Leschenko's playing was one of no-fail exuberance and rhythmic pulse. She also joined the group for works by Mozart and Schumann, plus vintage Dvorak -- his Piano Quintet, Op. 81. The Auryn approached this music in perfect ensemble and with some darkly eloquent cello solos. Later in the quintet, no one could miss the metrical pull of Bohemian Dumka" and Furiant movements that shifted abruptly between melancholy and mind-numbing exhilaration.

Clarinetist Michael Collins proved equally excellent in the brooding pathos of the Brahms Quintet, Op. 115, beautifully probing the instrument's spell-binding range and extending unbelievably long lines in one breath with a supremely vocal legato.

-- Cecelia Porter

Choral Arts Society

"What man would not weep?" asked the Choral Arts Society at Sunday afternoon's Kennedy Center performance. The text belongs to Dvorak's "Stabat Mater" and refers to Mary's suffering at the Crucifixion, but it also relates to the composer's own sorrow: He completed the Mass in 1877, shortly after the deaths of his three children.

Anguish suffuses the work through dark, Brahms-like textures and poignant, Italianate melodies that linger. In particular, "Quis est homo," sung by mezzo-soprano Stacey Rishoi with heartbreaking fervor and contralto-like richness, left a haunting mark when the concert was finished.

Conductor Norman Scribner brought out Dvorak's warring impulses toward ferocity and peace, as Scribner offset the National Symphony Orchestra's robust basses and cellos with the Choral Arts Society's ethereal, almost blindingly pure sound. A choir that can sometimes warrant the faint praise of "lovely," the singers showed an exciting new intensity in this work, punctuating sweeter passages about redemption with searing, full-voiced cries of returning grief.

The basic structure and goals of the piece came across strongly, but its full effects were lost in Scribner's efforts to convey its power. Movements that called for softer singing and playing rarely dipped below mezzo-forte, and the soloists' voices often got lost in obsessive, circling string motives and plangent, extended brass notes.

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