Classical review, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma and Daniel Barenboim at Symphony Center

The chamber music equivalent of the Super Bowl, World Series and Chicago Marathon, all rolled into one.

That was the all-star concert presented by pianist Daniel Barenboim and friends Itzhak Perlman, violin, Pinchas Zukerman, viola, and Yo-Yo Ma, cello, along with Chicago Symphony Orchestra players Robert Chen, violin, and Larry Combs, clarinet, Sunday at Symphony Center. It must be said that their performances carried no sense of competition, no feeling of superstars doing their own thing while pretending to be a chamber ensemble. Rather, the event felt like a joyous late-night chamber music soiree chez Barenboim, to which several thousand lucky listeners were invited.

Barenboim has convened other such summit meetings in Chicago, but this one carried a special cachet. Three hours long, with two intermissions, the concert had been sold out for months, stage and terrace seats included. And the program was all red meat, holding the piano quintets of Schumann and Brahms, as well as Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time."

With so much music on their plates, Sunday's performers could be excused if their playing betrayed minor infelicities of intonation and ensemble, especially near the end. But most of the music-making was as accomplished and finely polished as one would expect from such virtuoso instrumentalists. Chen was a late addition to the roster. Maxim Vengerov's cancellation gave the CSO concertmaster a chance to show off his skills as a chamber musician. A superb and sensitive violinist, he made the utmost of this rare opportunity.

The main problem, in fact, was not musical but acoustical. In fully scored pages of the Brahms and Schumann quintets where the dynamic level rises above mezzo-forte, the sound, as heard from a seat at the center of the main floor, had a dry, harsh "burr" around it—hardly the richness of tone one associates with Perlman and Zukerman. The hall's deficiency of high frequency energy no doubt was exacerbated by the presence of so many sound-absorbing bodies on stage. But knowing that didn't make the bleached acoustics any easier to live with.

That said, "Quartet for the End of Time" came off the best of the three pieces. Written while the composer was in a Silesian prison camp during World War II, the work—scored for the unusual combination of violin, cello, clarinet and piano—masterfully weaves together the two central elements of his mature style, Catholic mysticism and birdsong.

Barenboim was wonderful, whether anchoring rhythmic patterns, sparking various instrumental dialogs or supplying softly chiming chords as a harmonic floor for the other performers. Ma's long cello solo fell exquisitely on the ear, breathing a radiant serenity and meditative beauty beyond time. But the clarinet and violin solos by Combs and Chen, respectively, were hardly less spellbinding. All in all, a performance of fiercely poetic concentration and dedication.

Perhaps the most notable feature of the players' Schumann and Brahms was the zestful spontaneity of their interpretations: These Romantic masterpieces fairly leapt from the page. One had the sense of enormous energy carrying the music forward, always with a sense of deep commitment and passionate engagement in making music as friends and artistic equals. Musical socialism never had more convincing advocates.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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