A Toast to Mozart

Celebrating Mozart on his birthday Wednesday in a Town Hall concert, pianist Byron Schenkman and several colleagues enlivened their performances with raffle drawings for an audience already enjoying wine and chocolates. Downstairs at Town Hall was jammed with people skipping the last part of the State of the Union speech to be there and the atmosphere was cheerfully festive.

The performances, of Mozart works mostly from the composer’s late teens and very early twenties, were of generally high level as one would expect from anything Schenkman does, but within that the results were uneven.

The concert began with the Sonata in C Major, K. 296, for violin and piano, but it’s essentially a piano sonata with violin accompaniment. Schenkman was playing on the seven-foot Hamburg Steinway donated to Town Hall by Elsbeth Pfeiffer in memory of her brother Hans Wolf (the performance was dedicated to them), and it’s an instrument well suited to Mozart. The sound is less massive than in today’s big Steinways, the decay is shorter, the tone a little less rich.

Schenkman played with the clarity, articulation and precision he has always brought to harppsichord performance, not to mention with the approach of someone steeped in the prior century, but now including the dynamics possible on a piano.

However, the piano lid was fully raised and the balance of sound between it and James Garlick’s violin was unequal. It seemed that Schenkman was just overpowering Garlick, but Garlick played in such self-effacing manner that had he added more pizzazz and energy to the lovely tone he was producing, things might have been more even.

Schenkman’s elegant playing of the Variations on a Theme of Salieri was followed by the Sonata in B Flat major, K 358, for piano four hands, where Rachel Matthews joined him.

The two have known each other for many years and presumably have played together before, yet this was not one of their best showings. With four hands on a piano the performance can sound clunky, and this was definitely so here, particularly in the fast movements, the slow one sounding better. The two players didn’t seem to have an identical approach and were at times not together, noticeably so on some important chords.

Violist Mara Gearman and cellist Benjamin Wolff joined Schenkman and Garlick

for the final work, the Quartet in E-Flat Major for piano and strings, K 493. Here again, balance was uneven but this time most clearly between Garlick and Gearman. Garlick continued to play very much in a less-is-more manner, not as a leader. Normally I appreciate a player whose tone is sweet, who doesn’t play classical music in rich romantic style, nor hack at the music, whose whole approach is thoughtfully musical and whose technique is excellent. All these attributes Garlick has, and yet his playing throughout this evening was pastel-colored, lacking vibrancy. I’ve heard him playing quite differently in 20th century music, so why this choice for this concert? Even when playing forte, his tone was thin, lacking depth.

Gearman went the other way, coming on a bit too strong in contrast with the other two strings. Wolff was a strong anchoring cello and Schenkman had one marvelling at the round evenness of the fastest trills or runs.

Yet all in all, despite the quibbles, this felt like an enjoyable evening spent with friends who had gathered to play and listen to chamber music together and from whom it was not necessary to demand perfection. It was fun, and it was musical.

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