Fort Worth — The Fort Worth Symphony is wrapping up its annual Concerts in the Garden. The Dallas Symphony is in Colorado representing Texas in the Bravo! Vail Music Festival. The Cliburn Amateur Piano Competition wrapped up last week. So what is a music-loving Metroplexian to do?
Go to the Mimir Chamber Music Festival in Fort Worth, that’s what.
This festival brings together top-flight pianists and string players to perform chamber works from Mozart to Mason Bates, and does it in a first-rate way, year after year.
This season’s activities consist of five regular concerts, plus two Emerging Artists performances that feature mostly college-age musicians. Sunday’s recital at the Kimbell Art Museum (all other concerts are at TCU's PepsiCo Rectial Hall) was the most traditional in its programming, featuring Schubert’s Fantasy in F Minor for piano four hands, Shostokovich’s Cello Sonata, and Schubert’s dark and intense Der Tod und das Mädchen, “Death and the Maiden,” Quartet, D. 810.
The Schubert F Minor Fantasy, as performed by Alessio Bax and John Novacek, was a wonder. Franz Schubert wrote a sizable body of works for piano four hands, this Fantasy premier among them. Written the year of Schubert’s death, it is a four movement work, but all four movements are played without a break for the 20-minute duration of the piece. From the simple, lyrical melody of the first movement to the fugal finale, Bax and Novacek made magic. Phrasing was thoughtful and delicate, the two musicians were almost always well-balanced, and the overall impression was one of Schubertian joy.
Bax returned to the stage with Chicago Symphony cellist Brant Taylor for Shostakovich’s early Cello Sonata, Op. 40. This technically forbidding sonata in four movements includes wickedly difficult parts in both instruments, quirky harmonies, and in the final movement, a sort of madcap-circus rush to what, in Sunday’s performance, was a breathtaking conclusion. Taylor is a technically and musically impressive cellist. We are fortunate to hear him this summer in five chamber music recitals and in a solo recital as part of the Lev Aronson Festival. (You can check out the review of the solo recital here.) No less impressive, though, was Alessio Bax. He is a collaborative pianist who truly knows how to work with string players. He never overwhelmed Taylor, but nevertheless maintained a full dynamic range.
The star of Sunday’s recital was Schubert’s quartet “Death and the Maiden.” It, like the Fantasy, was written during the final year of Schubert’s life. For this performance of one of Schubert’s relatively few dark works, cellist Taylor was joined by Cleveland Symphony Principal Second Violin Stephen Rose, Nashville Symphony Concertmaster Jun Iwasaki, and Houston Symphony Associate Principal Viola Joan DerHovsepian to round out the quartet.
One of the several remarkable things about Schubert is that even as he was 30 years old and dying, much of his prodigious musical output remained remarkably cheerful. But when Schubert goes dark, he goes really dark: witness his song cycle Winterreise and his “Death and the Maiden” Quartet, both composed in his last years. The quartet is a rumination on death that ends with a tarantella, the Italian dance thought to cure a poisonous spider bite. So even at the end of the quartet, with its drama, there remains—maybe—hope for redemption and a cure.
Sunday’s performance of this iconic quartet featured beautiful balance among the four musicians, and generally spot-on tempi and intonation—although the very few pitch problems were not helped by the relentlessly unforgiving acoustics of the Renzo Piano Pavilion. Rose’s playing in upper registers could sometimes have been more polished. In general, unison playing was rock solid. A few minor quibbles aside, this was brilliant string quartet playing of the highest caliber.
» The 2016 Mimir Chamber Music Festival has two more main concerts, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 5 and Friday, July 8; and another Emerging Artist Concert at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 7. To see a full list of concerts and the programs, go here.