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Yossi Kalichstein in Memorial

New York
Alice Tully Hall
04/02/2023 -  
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Abgang and Kaddish
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Quintet in A major for Clarinet, Two Violins, Viola, and Cello, K. 581
Johannes Brahms: Quintet in F minor for Piano, Two Violins, Viola, and Cello, Op. 34

David Shifrin (clarinet), Jaime Laredo, James Thompson (violins), Milena Pájaro‑van de Stadt (viola), Sharon Robinson (cello), Shai Wosner (piano)

J. Kalichstein, S. Robinson, J. Laredo

The concert heard at Alice Tully Hall originally was supposed to be performed by the celebrated Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio. Alas, Joseph Kalichstein, or Yossi as he was known to almost everyone, succumbed to cancer just a year ago, on March 31, 2022. And with his passing the 45 year old history of the trio, the longest one functioning among such ensembles, came to an end.

Yossi, even before embarking on a long career as chamber musician, was a wonderful musician and formidable piano soloist as well as a beloved teacher, for many decades connected with the Juilliard School. It was a wonderful idea that the two of his colleagues and friends with whom he performed in the Trio were with us that afternoon of April 2nd, and that they were joined by three other wonderful artists from the Chamber Music Society to offer a musical tribute to the late pianist.

Of the three works performed, two were well‑known masterpieces (quintets by Mozart and Brahms) and one received its New York premiere: Abgang and Kaddish (2019) for clarinet, violin, cello and piano by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939).

I felt that opening a program with this composition made was perceptive as it seemed appropriate for the occasion on several levels: the somber subject of the work, the presence of Kaddish in connection of the pianist’s passing, and the choice of material and combination of instruments. The composer provided us with her own enlightening comments worth at least a partial quoting: Ms. Zwilich stated that she was fascinated with the combination of those four instruments since the time of her studies in New York as a young violinist and composer. Those were of course the instruments used by Messiaen in his famous Quartet for the End of Time. So her own composition also harks back to the time of war: the word for the first segment Abgang – which in German means Exit – makes a reference to the traditional as well as Nazi term, which it was meant for the final exit i.e. extermination. She also quotes some material previously used by composers who died at the hands of Nazis: one is a Hebraic melody which Viktor Ullmann used in one of his sonatas written in Theresienstadt, the other a short quote from a foxtrot written by an unknown composer in Auschwitz. What follows, she says, is “purely musical but deeply felt exploration”. Then she confesses “after I finished the first movement I felt that it was necessary to add a second movement, Kaddish, which is a prayer recited in mourning , without a single mention of death, but celebrating God, peace and life.”
So the work has a solemn, grave character with the four instruments not so much conducting conversation, but large segments repeat in unison, with a minimal accompaniment or harmonic richness. The clarinet has the last word ending on one note held forever and sounding softer and softer.

In “Kaddish,” which starts with violin and clarinet in harmony, the first entrance of the cello, beautifully intoned by Sharon Robinson (in real life Mrs. Jaime Laredo), bears a strong resemblance to Kol Nidrei. There, the clarinet, perhaps the most traditional of Jewish instrument, is singing its lament, but enters the discourse after the three other instruments. Both segments maintained pretty much tonal quality, often relying on unison, often emulate Hebrew tunes. There were fleeting moments of heightened emotions but those quickly faded, returning to a somber, cantorial mood appropriate for the character of the piece.

Mr. Laredo, Ms. Robinson and Mr. Shifrin in their solos demonstrated beautiful qualities, whereas Mr. Wosner’s part was less exposed and often demoted to accompany the three other partners. From time to time the sparse writing brought to mind some like‑minded moments of music by Shostakovich or Wajnberg and perhaps it gave the appropriate character for the subject of music. It fit the occasion albeit it was written a good few years before Yossi’s passing.

Mozart’s Quintet in A Major featured again the excellent David Shifrin, pre‑eminent member of the CMS and a player who obviously travels the road previously taken by the great Stanley Drucker, former first clarinetist of the NY Philharmonic: he simply doesn’t age, doesn’t lower his standards, with no waning of his capacities, which is remarkable as he is now 73 years old.

This quintet most likely bears no secrets to him or his colleagues, who this time included two relatively newcomers: violinist James Thompson and violist Miena Pajaro‑van de Stadt. In all instances, it was a lovely, musical, traditional performance but which left this listener with an absence of excitement, and sense of monotony. There were two reasons: it seems that a successful performance of Mozart benefits not only by technical excellence, which one may argue these players all possess, but also a sense of interesting, stylish phrasing which this time was not totally apparent. The whole performance had a gemütlich character; musicians often produced lovely sounds and demonstrated an obvious musicality, yet somehow it was a bit earthbound. One would wish for more variety when the repeats were taken or more pronounced phrasing.

Nowadays, Jaime Laredo joins the ranks of such famous violinists as Milstein and Joseph Fuchs who were still performing, and performing well into their 80s. I have always admired his playing – AND his conducting! – and for his age (he is born in 1941!), he still plays remarkably well, his sound is still sweet despite an occasional slight intonation problem or lack of former suppleness and strength in the bow arm. You can perhaps take a physical strength out of a musician but can’t really take away his musicianship!

After the intermission, we heard Brahms Piano Quintet, which was the third performance I witnessed in the span of five weeks. Is there ever too much of that particular work? Not to my ears and especially when at the piano we had Shai Wosner, who was utilized properly this time by CMS, as a leader rather than inaudible harpsichord player in Bach Brandenburg Concertos, something I sometimes describe as the waste of human resources. This work needs all five players but the pianist is always at the rudder. Wosner is, not only in the opinion of this writer, one of the most formidable, experienced and thoughtful chamber musicians of his generation and he showed his class again as a leader. It is impressive to hear his way with dynamics, when he is able effortlessly to increase the volume only to allow the other players to shine, when their parts are more prominent. I felt that it was an interpretation as seen through the eyes (ears?) of a young man – and Brahms WAS only in his early 30s when the work as we now it was completed – and I think it was Wosner who was responsible for the energy, vigor and liveliness. In the finale Allegro ma non troppo, he created an unusual amount of give and take and flexibility of tempo that sometimes would demonically surge ahead but skillfully without getting off the tracks. It was an exciting and occasionally even exhilarating performance that I am sure would have pleased our dear Yossi who has departed but surely not forgotten.

Roman Markowicz



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