Wolf Trap christens new piano in mixed Chopin program by Chamber Music Society

Sat Mar 12, 2022 at 12:07 pm

Pianist Gloria Chien performed with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Friday night at Wolf Trap.

Listening to the gradual return of live classical music this season has mostly inspired relief and joy. A different but just as familiar feeling arose in reaction to the latest chamber music program in the Barns at Wolf Trap on Friday evening. After two years of elation at the chance to hear any live music, it was a surprise to feel a bit underwhelmed by the all-Chopin program presented by members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Retooled from a concert presented last fall at the group’s home in New York, this program featured some of the same music and same performers. Any one-evening survey of the Polish composer’s oeuvre must focus on the piano, the instrument for which he wrote almost all of his music. This program ignored the most thrilling piano pieces, to concentrate, not unexpectedly, on his limited forays into chamber music.

The performances were all solid and at times even poetic. Pianist Michael Brown opened the Barcarolle in F-Sharp Major with surprising rubato in the lilting rhythms of a Venetian gondolier’s song. Brown drew a misty veil over the middle section in A major, but he often rushed over significant moments, like the curious modulation back to the home key. The technical demands were all met handily, including double trills, chains of sixths, and gossamer runs.

The Cello Sonata in G Minor best represented Chopin’s chamber music experiments. Brown accompanied with more nuance, taking his own turns in the spotlight and then allowing cellist Nicholas Canellakis, to shine. The latter, playing from memory, impressed most with his soft, burnished tone. At louder dynamics, his occasionally raw sound lost its shine, turning harsh in the top range.

After much romantic anguish in the first movement, both musicians seized on the Scherzo with a devilish air. Canellakis crooned sweetly on the A string in the trio of this second movement, which stood out as a moment of reverie. With exquisite intonation Canellakis starred in the slow movement with similar reserve, as if in an intimate pas de deux, a stolen moment amid turmoil. Brown’s virtuosity fueled the excitement of the finale, as he rattled through waves of cascading notes.

At the start of the second half Gloria Chien presented two of the composer’s most familiar piano works. Her interpretation of the Nocturne in D-Flat Major (Op. 27, no. 2) moved in a dream-like haze, the suspended melody in the right hand almost disconnected from the arpeggiating pulse of the left. Filigree runs glowed like silke, one example of the pleasing range of touch she brought to the piece. (During a Q&A with the performers after intermission, we learned that the shiny new Steinway on the stage had just been purchased and delivered to the Barns.)

The audience, who had applauded between movements of the Cello Sonata, had no opportunity to clap as Chien launched without a break into the Waltz in D-Flat Major, popularly known as the “Minute Waltz.” Chien stretched the tempo back and forth, giving the piece a playful, even haphazard quality. This was reminiscent of the waltz’s other nickname, “Valse du petit chien,” as it was supposedly inspired by the sight of a puppy chasing its own tail.

The evening ended with the Piano Trio in G Minor, a work of the composer’s late teenage years that did not hold up in comparison to what had come before. Chien anchored the ensemble with an athletic rendition of the piano part, which dominates the first movement and most of the work. The two string players, Canellakis on cello and Cho-Liang Lin on violin, sometimes seemed at odds with her in terms of the tempo.

Chien did not yield much leeway for the string lines in the Scherzo either, with the exception of the more gentle Trio section, where the quiet violin and cello came to the foreground. After serving mostly as accompaniment for the piano, Lin and Canellakis had their best moments in the quiet slow movement, especially in the exposed ending. The folksy boldness of the finale called for a more bravura style than the reticent violinist generally provided, but the ensemble ultimately came together in a satisfying way.

Wolf Trap hosts Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center for a selection of string favorites by Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms 7:30 p.m. April 1. wolftrap.org

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