Palestrina Choir

Sixteen voices singing the music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and his contemporaries, in an intimate church space with clearly focused acoustics, is an attractive proposition. The Palestrina Choir's appearance Saturday at Dumbarton Church (part of the Dumbarton Concert Series) provided the kind of rarefied beauty that high-church Renaissance polyphony demands.

Let early-music scholars debate the finer points of Tomas Luis de Victoria's treatment of canonic form, vs. that of, say, Cristobal de Morales or Johannes Lupi (to name three composers on Saturday's program). It didn't take a specialist's ear to appreciate the stark beauty of Josquin Desprez's "Salve Regina," the inventive volley of melodic ideas across different voices in the "Ave Maria" of the seldom-encountered Nicolle des Celliers d'Hesdin or, indeed, the vaulting lyricism, grace and quiet majesty of the half-dozen Palestrina selections.

The choir's founder and music director, Michael Harrison, has honed a stylistically apt sound from his ensemble of mixed voices -- airy and pure while not lacking in warmth, agile in maneuvering ever-shifting dynamic levels, and possessing the ability to let a phrase blossom robustly, then fade into the ether. The sensitive singing of the trio and quartet of individual voices in the Sanctus from Palestrina's "Missa Ave Maria" demonstrated that this is very much a chorus of fine soloists -- which made their seamless ensemble blend that much more admirable.

-- Joe Banno

Juana Zayas

It's difficult for Americans to visit Cuba, but not so hard for us to experience Cuban culture. At Friday's Embassy Series concert at the Cuban Interests Section, Cuban pianist Juana Zayas offered rarely heard gems from her homeland, along with a sampling of core classical repertoire.

Zayas lived up to her reputation as a colorful interpreter of Chopin in a mini-smorgasbord of concert pieces. "Grande Valse Brillante" had a lovely dancelike flow, with a wry whimsy that balanced well with the composer's intellectual side. The Barcarolle, Op. 60, was insightful and dramatic, while the Berceuse, Op. 57, was sensitively if not delicately played. Zayas approached the Ballade in G Minor, Op. 23, with joyful zeal, launching into the final section at breakneck speed, yet executing every note cleanly.

Zayas's performance of Mozart's Sonata in A, K. 331, was as flaccid as her Chopin was colorful, lacking subtlety and dynamic contrast. Even the lively rondo "alla turca" was uninspired. Ravel's music fared better, with "Jeux d'Eau" rippling gently under her fingers. But sections of his Sonatine went by too fast to enjoy nuance, with more than a few finger slips.

Zayas created a musical Cuban portrait by putting together 16 miniatures by Cuban composers. Their distinctive styles made it a survey course of Cuban classical music. Ignacio Cervantes's European influence blended with Latin flavor; Gisela Hernandez's intense jazz chords and rhythms brought a nightclub into the recital hall; and Ernesto Lecuona's trifold careers in popular, film and classical music were evident in the glitz and drama of his music.

-- Gail Wein

Vermeer Quartet

Few string quartets today have a sound as pleasing as the Vermeer Quartet. Yet Friday at the Library of Congress, the group showed how pushing "pleasing" to its limits can be an asset.

The Vermeers displayed their likable, well-integrated tone in Haydn's Quartet Op. 76, No. 1. First violinist Shmuel Ashkenasi applied a folksy but elegant charm to the rustic Menuetto. And Marc Johnson's cello radiated a warm glow over the hymnlike Adagio.

Pianist Edmund Battersby joined the group for Ernst von Dohnanyi's Piano Quintet No. 1. It's rarely played, and often accused of sounding like warmed-over Brahms. Which it does. Still, the quintet has its merits, especially the rollicking Magyar theme dominating the finale. It's the kind of catchy tune you enjoy humming later. But for all its ardor, the quintet feels claustrophobic -- often too ambitious, too tightly woven and too Brahmsian for its own good. Battersby's myriad notes barely poked through the thicket of strings.

The Vermeers traded their amiable tone for an atmosphere of manic ecstasy in Leos Janacek's String Quartet No. 2 ("Intimate Letters"). It's a musical translation of white-hot love letters, blazing with mournful cries and moments of surprising violence.

Ashkenasi's resourceful playing delivered tones that both swelled with lyrical passion and teetered on the edge of fear. Violist Richard Young's intuitive playing was as rock-solid as can be in music of such crazed passion, especially at the end, where instead of wrapping up with a pretty bow, Janacek impulsively snaps off the sound, and you're left breathless.

-- Tom Huizenga

Pianist Juana Zayas performed at the Cuban Interests Section on Friday.