SoNoRo Festival Bucharest 10th Anniversary Concert in Review

SoNoRo Festival Bucharest 10th Anniversary Concert in Review

The Romanian Cultural Institute in New York and RA Entertainment present SoNoRo Festival Bucharest 10th Anniversary Concert
Diana Ketler, piano; Alexander Sitkovesky and Daniel Rowland, violins; Razvan Popovici, viola; Julian Arp, cello
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
November 30, 2015

A fervent crowd of Romanians, also celebrating their “National Day” (Dec. 1), was treated to a banquet of late-Romantic works for piano quartet, and one quintet, by the outstanding ensemble players of SoNoRo, based in Bucharest, now in its tenth year. The group was founded to remedy the shortage of knowledge and performance opportunities for fine chamber music in Romania—it has since become an important traveling ambassador. It is formed of a cosmopolitan group of Europe’s outstanding chamber players.

After some sincere speechmaking (a capsule history of Romania, deftly delivered by the consul), the concert began with a rendition of Mahler’s only surviving chamber work, his Piano Quartet in A Minor. Written in his student days (age 16) in one continuous sonata-allegro movement, we “love” the piece anyway, though it doesn’t have the genius of the composer’s world-encompassing symphonies or the profound beauties of his Lieder. The work is indebted mainly to Schumann, but here’s the kicker: in the hands of the SoNoRo players (Diana Ketler, Alexander Sitkovesky, Razvan Popovici, and Julian Arp), who revealed its dark mood with such warm tone, it sounded like a much better piece than it really is.

The pianist for the entire evening was the astonishingly refined and tasteful Diana Ketler, one of the founders of SoNoRo. I have rarely heard such delicacy in the piano part of an ensemble, yet she also rose to occasions of great power easily. Her phrasing was exquisite, and myriad colors were summoned from the often-recalcitrant piano in Weill Hall. The strings were passionate, with full-bodied vibrato, and perfect tuning and ensemble. They indicated both their pleasure in playing and important cues with wonderful visual contact that never veered over into the theatrical. To witness the way each one listened to the others when one of them was not playing was a delight.

After the Mahler, they played Richard Strauss’ only venture into the Piano Quartet repertoire, his Op. 13 in C Minor. Here, unlike in the Mahler, we heard the compositional virtuosity and confidence of the young Strauss, with themes pointing the way to his larger tone-poems and operas in “embryo,” as it were. The Scherzo movement in particular was played with dash and sparkle. The personnel had been changed to a different violinist: Daniel Rowland, who my seat-neighbor said was “very good-looking, like Brad Pitt. That doesn’t hurt!” The work’s four movements brimmed with appropriate longing and were beautifully long-breathed.

 

After intermission came the Dohnányi Piano Quintet No. 2, Op. 26, with all five musicians making a boisterous mini-orchestra. Its first movement theme (in E-flat minor) seems to me like a subconscious transformation of the Fugue in D- sharp minor from Bach’s WTC book 1 (same key enharmonically). The Intermezzo is a sort of deconstructed salon-waltz that keeps interrupting itself. The Finale presents a very sober fugue in the string quartet group, followed by a chorale or hymn in the piano (again channeling Bach). Again, Ms. Ketler here made the most gorgeous legato tones of those long notes. Then the “Bach” theme from the first movement returns for a grand peroration, which renders the work “cyclic.” In the fabulous hands of SoNoRo, I was reminded how original Dohnányi’s music is, and how much better it deserves to be known, apart from a handful of works that are frequently performed.

 

For a rousing closer, they played an arrangement by Austrian composer Thomas Wally of Enescu’s (the sole Romanian composer on the bill) Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 in A major, Op. 11. A compendium of folk tunes and dances, when it broke into the whirlwind Hora section with which it concludes, the ensemble was on fire figuratively—truly exciting, wild, and fabulous. The audience roared its approval.

 

At the turn of the century (19th/20th), Bucharest was regarded as the “Paris of East-Central Europe,” with sophisticates from the French Paris often traveling there. Enescu himself studied at the Paris Conservatoire, befriending Ravel and performing Ravel’s early Violin and Piano Sonata. It is safe to say that with an ensemble like this, a musical pilgrimage to Bucharest would be well worth one’s time.