Friends of Chamber Music

The Czech Nonet

Date 6 February 2007 @ 20.00 Venue Vancouver Playhouse

Beethoven Septet for Winds and Strings in E flat major, Op. 20 Brahms Serenade in D, Op. 11

Reviewer J H Stape

The Czech Nonet, despite its formation as long ago as 1924 is now a mainly youthful ensemble dedicated to an enormous repertoire covering several periods. Its nonet (nine) members played to a Vancouver Playhouse almost bursting at the seams in this the fifth concert of the FCM's 2006-07 season, one generously and selflessly sponsored by Jastram Engineering, Ltd.

The two pieces on the programme were nicely contrasted. The Beethoven was an object lesson in why this composer is perennially popular, the very essence of the Romantic temper; the Brahms, solemn and staidly Teutonic, also proved to be a seminar on the composer's aims and method. Presenting a larger group than usual offered novelty in a series mostly and happily devoted mainly to the world's best quartets and trios.

Beethoven's Septet for Winds and Strings (1800), an immensely elegant work of serious playfulness and playful seriousness, was given an polished, respectful performance, the seven musicians displaying a dark-chocolate-y luxuriance, typical of "the" Eastern European sound, and based on rock solid technique and enviable discipline.

The Septet is modeled on two essential human impulses: singing and dancing, with a cantabile character almost running throughout and not confined to the second movement explicitly marked Adagio cantabile. The slow opening (two adagio movements) gave way to a brief minuet that was relaxed and stately rather than typically extroverted, its fundamental happiness contained rather than spilling over. There was slight blurring of details here, perhaps partly due to a hall not terribly friendly to wind instruments.

The fourth movement Tema con variazioni, strait-laced and formal, proved an exploration of the semi-serious with a rare flash of humour and offering dazzling work for the violin (just a shade prominent throughout the evening). The music seemed here to yearn for larger, symphonic treatment, and one can see why this piece was the most popular of Beethoven's works during the composer's lifetime. Relief and contrast were offered by a playful Scherzo of the toe-tapping kind that was shot through with gentle good humour. The last movement, opening with a stately march, develops into a whirlwind that burbles excitedly with the finale ending in a vigorous presto outburst.

Brahms's Serenade in D, in six movements, is constructed as a series of vivid contrasts. The opening Allegro, summery in temperament, has a pronounced rustic character, with something of the hayrick and clod-hopper about it. It was followed by a Scherzo, again offering glimpses of the countryside and dance-like elements, that gave expression to a rather heavy Teutonic sense of humour. More serious material comes in the Adagio non troppo, dominated by stately and wistful elements, the mood dissipated by paired minuets but of a rather serious character and never quite unbuttoned or rousing. The Scherzo that followed attempts boisterousness with Brahms finally letting his hair down for an all-out fling before the closing Rondo, with its pulsing intensity where the dance becomes earnest.

The Nonet favoured the audience with a brief (clearly modern) encore whose composer was unannounced. The snippet left us hankering for a greater display of its virtues in the modern repertoire.

© 2007 J H Stape