Rembrandt Chamber players unearth some gems

By Alan G. Artner
Chicago Tribune
September 27, 2016

You could spend more than a half-century attending chamber music concerts in the Chicago area before encountering most of the pieces on Sunday afternoon’s recital by Rembrandt Chamber Musicians at Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston.

To open its 27th season, RCM offered a salute to Russian and Hungarian folk music through 19th- and 20th century transformations by Igor Stravinsky, Ferenc Farkas, Zoltan Kodály, and Johannes Brahms.

Only the Brahms First Piano Quartet, with its concluding “Gypsy Rondo,” is well-known. The other selections, long and short, remain unfamiliar, though one is a masterpiece and all have a piquancy that gave near-ideal contrast to Brahmsian comfort.

The masterpiece, chosen as a calling card by the two most recent members of RCM, John Macfarlane and Calum Cook, was Kodály’s Opus 78 Duo for violin and cello. Again and again its 26 minutes challenge the players to go beyond themselves technically and expressively, and these did. So adept was the performance, in fact, that it had this listener convinced little of Kodaly’s work probed as deeply again.

The rest of the first half was made up of miniatures for unusual forces. Stravinsky’s Four Songs brought together female voice, flute, harp, and guitar. Farkas’ Népdalszonatina was for piano and double bass.

Soprano Josefien Stoppelenburg communicated persuasively both through word and gesture. In the three pieces that are children’s songs, she clearly appeared to enjoy herself, infecting the audience. But in the exception, chilly and ritualistic, she also achieved a lovely soft stillness over the trilling flute.

The three-movement Farkas sonatina proved as brief as the Stravinsky but much less sophisticated and generally direct in its treatment of folk material. Pianist Jeannie Yu and bassist Collins Trier played with appropriate lightness in their uncommon pairing.

Almost 80 years after Brahms completed his first Piano Quartet, Arnold Schoenberg orchestrated it because he believed it “is always very badly played, as the better the pianist, the louder he plays, and one hears nothing of the strings.”

No such imbalance occurred Sunday, owing in part to how strongly Nichols Hall projects all instruments. It, as usual, made a true pianissimo virtually impossible, but that aside, the performance had appealing delicacy as well as fervor and precision.

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