By Jon Sobel
Mozart, Richard Strauss, and 20th-century composer Jean Françaix were on the menu Friday night at the Baruch Performing Arts Center as three members of the Israeli Chamber Project and guest violist Paul Neubauer served a repast of virtuosity and variety. Presented by the Sandra Kahn Wasserman Jewish Studies Center, the program showed off the ensemble’s deep grounding in a wide range of repertoire.
Sandwiched between the Mozart and the Strauss, the performance of Françaix’s 1933 String Trio was my first exposure to the prolific Frenchman’s relatively neglected music. Based on this piece, I’d be happy and interested to hear more. Neither firmly modernist nor strictly neoclassical, the piece begins with a perpetual-motion Allegro, all ghostly agitation on muted strings. The Scherzo jumps with echoes of ragtime, posturing in good-natured mockery of a classical vocabulary. Vaguely jazzy chords also underpin the early strains of the Andante.
Again muted for the final Rondo, the the musicians plunged through a tutti statement and into gently swaying harmonies, passing the melody from instrument to instrument. Carmit Zori (violin), Hillel Zori (cello), and violist Neubauer rendered the entire concise work with sensitivity, grace, and a touch of humor.
The fun Françaix was perhaps all the more effective following Mozart’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, K. 493, a mature work that in this performance put me in mind of the astounding String Quintets of Mozart’s final years, as it feels nearly as forward-looking in some aspects. A few slightly rushed passages didn’t reduce the overall sweetness of the first movement as pianist Assaff Weisman merged a ballet-like touch with the string trio’s warm tones. The audience had to bite back an impulse to applaud when the movement ended. (It’s a pity current propriety doesn’t permit that; I think less formality would make classical concerts more widely appealing, and the additional feedback could help musicians distinguish their good performances from their great ones.)
The Larghetto movement begins in a simple lullaby-like mode, then grows with subtle complexity into dense drama. The string players conveyed Mozart’s fascinating harmonies in superb balance, while Weisman played with soft, tasteful restraint without ever sacrificing the clarity that’s all-important in Mozart. This emotional movement is very much a dialogue, and the four musicians spoke its narrative like lifelong friends, delivering with exquisite sensitivity what was to me the most memorable performance of a thoroughly satisfying evening of music.
Then they delved into the laughing recesses of the light-footed and lighthearted Allegretto, with its call-and-response passages, setting up the Françaix trio nicely.
After an intermission came the heavier matter of Richard Strauss’s Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 13. In the Brahmsian first movement of this youthful work, the musicians showed their deep understanding of the Romantic mode – though, to be honest, their performance of the Mozart had left that in little doubt. They achieved an orchestral energy in the striking three-instrument unison passages over rumbling thunder from the piano, and made the galloping Scherzo with its punchy accents an edge-of-your-seat experience. The Trio section felt like a Mendelssohn Venetian Boat Song.
In the Andante they brought out the heavy Rachmaninoff-like melodies and three-against-four rhythms with deep feeling but no schmaltz, and applied equal conviction to the Finale’s percussive energy and sparkling chromatics.
Based in Israel and New York, the Israeli Chamber Project has upcoming concerts in the U.S., Canada, and Israel.