By Scott MacClelland
A “collective” of musicians from Pablo Casals’ historic Prades Festival in southern France served up a four-course feast of sharply contrasting dishes to an audience hungry for chamber music. It was Chamber Music Monterey Bay’s season-opener at Carmel’s Sunset Center on Saturday night. What may not have been obvious at the outset was the ensemble’s first violinist, the eminent Kyoko Takezawa (left), who has wowed audiences and fellow artists as soloist with many of the world’s finest orchestras, chiefly in the US, Europe and Japan. Violist Nobuko Imai (below) has for decades been one of the most sought-after chamber music players of her instrument, as well as a soloist in the fairly rarified viola concerto repertoire. Their colleagues for this occasion, American-Finnish violinist Elina Vähälä, Finnish cellist Arto Noras and American pianist (and often violinist) Melvin Chen, have likewise amassed imposing credentials though, with fewer professional years, have a distance to go to catch up.
The collective’s artistic director here was clarinetist Michel Lethiec who performed in two of the aforementioned dishes: Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, K581, and Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes. In the former, Lethiec took the lead every time he got the melody, pushing his colleagues a bit ahead of the beat and giving the performance that desirable extra kick of energy. In the melting Larghetto, against muted strings, he kept the forward momentum in clear focus and eschewed the precious swoons that one so often hears other clarinetists indulge.
In the Prokofiev however, he played with such French subtlety as to lose the inherently rustic klezmer character of that part. The work is more or less in ritornello form with the clarinet returning over and again to put that klezmer stamp on it. Between those iterations, the music for strings and piano tends to drift toward more romantic musings on other Eastern European Jewish melodies.
The meal began with the suite from Darius Milhaud’s ballet La création du monde in the composer’s own reduction for piano quintet. In 1923, the jazz-saturated score was unprecedented and wildly popular. Milhaud was right about one thing: lodged in the concert hall, jazz would never be pried loose. (Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue cemented that incursion the following year.) The quintet version tasted richly of ‘all that jazz,’ but the fugal second movement, the scherzo and the finale, which revisits and recalls all the earlier material, needed a more aggressive commitment, even at the expense of refinement, if it hoped to capture the intense energy of the original orchestral score. Well-played as it was, the piece wants its expressive character to take priority over its more contained musical values.
At last arrived the unquestioned triumph of the evening, Fauré’s Piano Quartet in C Minor, Op 15. Perhaps the most prolific chamber music composer of his generation in France, Fauré’s others works have never challenged the popularity of this one. For one thing, it flashes with original ideas and concentrates them into a succinct whole in a way few others of his works overall do. It dazzles, seduces and continually surprises. No wonder that it so plainly echoes through the early chamber music of Debussy and Ravel. Violinist Takezawa, violist Imai, cellist Noras and pianist Chen had their fingers on the pulse of the piece. You’ve got to love it when that happens.