An appreciative capacity crowd, seated on plastic lawn chairs, wooden benches and bar stools jammed Stonechurch Vineyards for another varied tasting from the Niagara International Chamber Music Festival’s “Music and Wine” series. Not even the attendance by hundreds of fruit flies could dampen the party-like atmosphere; after all, they need a bit of culturing too!
The first half was a mini violin recital featuring Victor Danchenko and pianist Tamara Dovgan. From the opening measures, as the long, rich lines of the Janáček found every corner of the makeshift venue, it was clear that the performance would be passionate and full-blooded. The “Ballade” was a highlight: Danchenko delivered a well thought-out if somewhat slippery legato tone, then the beautifully articulated second subject drew everyone into the heart of the music. The brutal opening ideas of the “Allegretto” proved to be the perfect foil for the tranquil idea that followed, which was presented as a welcome relief, like a fine ice wine after a cantankerous discussion. Only the transition back to the “Twinkle-like” theme detracted from the whole.
Similarly, a truly wonderful feeling of muted unease was pulled from the opening bars of the “Adagio.” Then Dovgan took stage and, despite an instrument hardly worthy of her skills, shone through and led the way with surety to the impressive full-bowed climax. Finally, Janáček had the last, quiet word as the sonata more dissipated than ended, leaving a marvellous feeling of angst through art in its wake.
Next up was a veritable party piece, proof positive that classical music at summer festivals need not be too strenuous on the patrons. Fritz Kreisler’s formidable arrangement of Schumann’s Fantasie, bursting with double stops, harmonics and melodramatic melody was a pleasure throughout. Dovgan stuck to her virtuoso partner like crazy glue as he dazzled the crowd with technique and style that seldom faltered as its pages flew by.
The evening closed out with an uneven reading of Weber’s Grand Quintetto. Julian Milkis was the able clarinetist; his fluid, easy-flowing tone was generally appropriate for this taxing score, but his “cane” strategy precluded savouring the stratosphere. Accordingly, he settled for truncated utterances in the “Allegro,” hit-and-miss utterances in the “Rondo,” but crossed the line of interpretative licence in the melancholy “Fantasia,” robbing the climactic trill and its miraculous resolution of their full value—Oh for a reissue of Henrich Geuser’s incredible recording with the Drolc Quartet (Mace M9028) made decades ago!
For its part, the Gould Quartet provided sturdy support, with only a fleeting slip off the rails near the end of the first movement impeding the proceedings. Oftentimes the phrase endings were halted, thinking too soon about what was to come, but all was forgiven by the ensemble’s exquisite decay as the languid first line of the second movement evaporated to the heights. Much more, please.
The cheeky “Capriccio Presto” needed more fun, less tension. However, in its contrasting “Trio,” Atis Bankas established the calmer mood wonderfully, inspiring violist Alexsander Gajic to follow suit and provide caramel accompaniments that were a supportive joy, only to have the “Da Capo” taken up a “beat” too late.
The unstoppable “Finale” was exciting indeed but failed to deliver the zesty subtext, rather like—“nudge-nudge, wink-wink,”—the technical histrionics that pepper so many of its pages.
Such are the logistics of myriad concerts squeezed into a short time that many of the performances are still works-in-progress rather than fully formed examinations of this spectacular repertoire. JWR