Performing arts reviews

Sunday, January 30, 2011; 10:11 PM


Ariel Quartet

The Ariel Quartet's members are no slouches; they work hard, and they crank out virtuosity by the bucketful and passion by the yard. Why, then, did their recital on Friday night at the Corcoran Gallery feel so curiously flat?

Maybe it was the wobbly start to the evening, when the Corcoran's technicians forgot to turn on the stage lights, leaving the hapless Ariel to play Beethoven's Quartet in D, Op. 18, No. 3 in the dim gloom. The opening Allegro of that engaging work should have brightened the place up a bit, but instead came off as lifeless and lacking in momentum, and the group didn't start generating electricity until the closing Presto. Better late than never, but still.

In their defense, the Ariel is still a very, very young quartet. Its members are all in their early 20s, and their strengths, at this stage, are remarkable technical ability and ample supplies of youthful passion. But as the evening wore on, it was clear they burned like straw rather than coal, producing brilliant flashes of light but little lasting heat. Their reading of Alban Berg's String Quartet, Op. 3, for instance, was fiery, intelligent and exceptionally detailed - a treat to hear. Yet for all its interest, the performance felt thin and choreographed, like a staged fight where the punches look real but don't actually connect.

Things warmed up a bit when the much-admired violist Roger Tapping joined the Ariel for Mozart's Viola Quintet in D, K. 593, though it was hard to ignore the contrast between Tapping's seasoned, deliberate power - when he punches, he connects - and the earnest fiddling around him. But these are still early days for the Ariel, and as their passion deepens into insight, the group looks set to accomplish impressive things.

- Stephen Brookes


Juho Pohjonen

The Washington Performing Arts Society has a deep bench; Till Fellner had to back out of his recital Saturday afternoon at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater due to a hand ailment, but his replacement, a young Finnish pianist named Juho Pohjonen, delivered an elegant, handsome performance in its place. Only two years past graduation from the Sibelius Academy, Pohjonen is already a coolly confident artist. Though there are still aspects of his playing that will undoubtedly become more solid in the future, he is well worth hearing now.

The program itself was both simple and creative. Each half consisted of a major piece from the standard repertoire preceded by a baroque work that inspired it. An "ordre" (suite) of Francois Couperin was a perfect lead-in to Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin." In the former, Pohjonen's sound was dry (little pedal), though the touch could have been still more crisp. His internal metronome is not always infallible, as the dance movements in the Ravel could have had a more natural lilt. But his extraordinary digital clarity in the Couperin - the hands sometimes executing different ornaments at different speeds simultaneously - made the music glisten. This skill served him even better in the Ravel, where Pohjonen's pellucid textures reached across centuries, from the harpsichord to the synthesizer. The Toccata in particular was a tour de force, the chattering repeated notes and lightning-fast leaps simply dazzling.

The second half was only slightly less successful. Pohjonen paired Handel's harpsichord Suite in B-flat with Brahms's titanic Handel Variations (on a theme from the Suite's final movement, which is itself a set of variations). The artist launched into the Brahms without pause; since the openings of the two works are identical, it made for a wonderful moment of disjointedness when the prim baroque theme exploded in Brahms's first, brusque variation. In this work, though, Pohjonen was taxed at times; the thunderous Variations IV and XIV were rather cautious, and there were some missed notes elsewhere. The expressive canvas was not as wide as other artists have managed, and again there were moments where the rhythm could have used more backbone. But these are just vestiges of musical youth; make no mistake, this is a pianist of real accomplishment and great promise.

- Robert Battey


Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Puerto Rican-born composer Roberto Sierra was quoted in the program for the Baltimore Symphony's Strathmore Hall concert on Saturday as stating, "I have no school" (indicating his avoidance of an easily pigeonholed style of writing). His Sinfonia No. 4, though, revealed clear neo-romantic sympathies, its 19th-century-style melodic writing occasionally made pungent with light dissonance, and its Holst-like range of glittering timbral color warmed by the tropical heat of Latin percussion.

Conductor Juanjo Mena drew considerable power from this engaging piece, with fluent baton work insuring disciplined playing, and his animated face and physical exuberance coaxing that extra drop of fervor from the musicians. Given his vivid rendering of the Sierra, Mena might well have been expected to conduct Haydn's Symphony No. 85 ("La Reine") in just as bustling a fashion, as has become something of a norm in these days of historically informed performance practice. But his mellow, elegantly turned approach - often pulling the BSO strings down to a whisper of sound, and molding phrases with finely graded nuance at relaxed tempos - provided a dose of lovely, old-school contrast.

Mena brought similar warmth to Brahms's Violin Concerto, and the orchestra produced a burnished, chamber music-like interplay throughout the piece. That proved to be the right kind of support for violinist Augustin Hadelich, whose small, sweet, tightly focused tone and plain-spoken, classically proportioned reading treated the solo part more as a line in a chamber piece, allowing his spotlight to be shared with the array of eloquent players in the orchestra.

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