Concert review: Salzburg Hyperion Ensemble at the Library of Congress

SPECIALISTS: The members of the Salzburg Hyperion Ensemble have carved out a niche for themselves.
SPECIALISTS: The members of the Salzburg Hyperion Ensemble have carved out a niche for themselves.
By Robert Battey
Special to the Washington Post
Monday, February 7, 2011

The literature for string sextet encompasses only a half-dozen major works, so one cannot help but be impressed that the Salzburg Hyperion Ensemble has eked out a career playing this sliver of the repertoire since 1996. The group presented half the canon (Strauss, Schonberg, Brahms) at the Library of Congress on Friday.

At this performance, the ensemble was an entertaining assemblage; five men dressed in casual black and one striking woman wearing a shimmering blue gown (calling even further attention to herself by impassioned mugging during rests).

While they have clearly prepared the music to a level of precision and integration that one rarely encounters in this literature, they are strikingly heterogeneous players. All contributed high-quality artistry, but there were many, many balance problems throughout the evening. The principal voices were clearly delineated (everyone making space for them), but melodic lines split between two or more instruments often came out like someone was fiddling with the volume-control knob. The players' differences in sound and approach tickled the ear in some senses, but shortchanged the music in others.

The ensemble's greatest strength is in its almost effortless control of tempo; the larger the group, the harder it is to maintain an internal motor, but these musicians shifted gears and held tempos without any sense of being led by anyone. Very impressive. In Schonberg's "Verklarte Nacht," they perhaps tried too hard to depict the poem underlying the piece, with portentous pauses that impeded the flow. But the performance gradually took hold, one imaginative detail after another. A fine evening overall. Battey is a freelance writer.

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