By David Gordon Duke
VANCOUVER – For 66 years, Vancouver Friends of Chamber Music has brought the world’s best chamber ensembles to town. The Vancouver Recital Society is only half that age but has made the local recital scene rich and vibrant, in part through a focus on rising young performers. These complementary approaches came together March 19-21, when the two organizations collaborated on a three-day mini-festival at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre devoted to the chamber music of Brahms, featuring a septet of artists first brought to town by the VRS over the past decades.
The Jerusalem Quartet, the core ensemble of the Brahmsfest, gave intricately worked out renditions of the three Brahms string quartets. The Jerusalem especially value the sound of individual voices, and this approach to Brahms’ intricate inner voice parts created moments of exceptional clarity.
Each evening included a duo sonata, pairing individual members of the quartet with pianist Inon Barnatan, recently named as the New York Philharmonic’s first “artist-in-association.” This proved especially enlightening as violinist Alexander Pavlovsky, violist Ori Kam, and cellist Kyril Zlotnikov revealed intrinsically differing perspectives on Brahms performance. Zlotnikov delivered the E minor Sonata, Op. 38, as a cello showpiece, an opportunity to show off his glorious sound; Pavlovsky’s account of the D minor Sonata, Op. 108, was impassioned and thrilling. Kam’s interpretation of the last of the sonatas, the Sonata in E-flat, Op. 120, No. 2, was the most balanced in conception: thoughtful, with a hint of patrician restraint, but suffused with deep feeling.
Perhaps the best rationale for the mini-festival was the opportunity to sample three Brahms quintets. The B minor Quintet, Op. 115, with clarinetist Sharon Kam, proved a wistful but not overly melancholy affair – gentle, intense, and ultimately pensive rather than overtly theatrical. The G major Quintet, Op. 111, with violist Hsin-Yun Huang, came across very much in the spirit of the VRS Chamber Festival: passion and excitement glossed over some slippery moments, creating a vigorous and immensely entertaining take on a rather rarely heard work.
The event concluded in a blaze of glory with the F minor Quintet for piano and strings, Op. 34. While the Jerusalem Quartet was at the center of the festival concept, pianist Barnatan somewhat slyly emerged as first among equals. In the duo sonatas his ability to express his own distinctive Brahms idiom while respecting the ideas of his co-recitalists made for interesting listening. In the Quintet he more than matched the bravura and energy of the quartet, ratcheting up the impact of the performance with impeccable pacing and a nonchalantly illuminating devotion to detail.
David Gordon Duke contributes reviews and essays to The Vancouver Sun and American Record Guide. He is academic coordinator at the School of Music, Vancouver Community College, and also teaches at the University of British Columbia.