Monday, April 28, 2008

Aleph, Verge Ensembles

The Verge Ensemble, the adventurous new-music group in residence at the Corcoran Gallery, joined forces with the Paris-based Ensemble Aleph on Friday for a concert at the Embassy of France that demonstrated the value of trans-Atlantic cooperation in areas beyond mere trade and politics. Mingling their personnel, the two groups gave a nod to the past with a graceful reading of Ravel’s Piano Trio in A Minor, but focused on edgier works written in the last decade or two.

The composer Ken Ueno amplifies traditional instruments to uncover new worlds of sound, and his « Contemplation on Little Big Muff » gave Christophe Roy’s amplified cello a strange and unsettling intensity, probing into sustained tones and building drama from the timbral textures that were revealed. There were few concessions to loveliness, but the piece had a fascinating, elemental power that resonated long after it ended.

More immediately delectable were the two « Recitations » by French composer George Aperghis, sung with charming delicacy by the elfin soprano Monica Jordan. Light, playful works for solo voice, they hover somewhere between song and sound poetry, drawing on a range of effects from birdlike fluttering to deep-voiced growls.

A lullaby with a war scene in it is an intriguing idea, but Paolo Prestini’s « As Sleep Befell » — while often lovely — never quite gelled, drifting instead through a landscape of soft edges and earnest intentions. Dominique Clement’s « Let’s Go » was more colorful, incorporating taped snatches of film dialogue into a lively, lilting piece. But « After Midnight, Before Dawn » by Christopher Culpo was the real gem of the evening. Written for string quartet with two percussionists, it’s a strikingly vivid work that explores the elusive worlds of sleeping and dreaming, to hallucinogenic effect.

— Stephen Brookes

David Finckel and Wu Han

They could have called it « That ’80s Show » — the 1880s, that is. David Finckel and Wu Han’s Friday night recital at the Barns at Wolf Trap showcased three composers of that decade: a young Richard Strauss, a mature Edvard Grieg and a late-career Cesar Franck.

Finckel is very expressive, and not just with his cello: His face continually reflects the music’s emotions as he and pianist Wu Han (his wife), cue each other nearly imperceptibly. They brought elegant ebb and flow to Strauss’s Sonata in F, although Finckel’s cello, a 1993 instrument on a Stradivarius model, was a little gravelly in the lowest register. The second movement initially felt lugubrious, but it soon turned passionate — Wu Han brought passion to everything — and the finale was nicely relaxed despite occasional imperfect cello intonation.

The Grieg A Minor Sonata was wonderful. Finckel and Wu Han adeptly managed its many mood changes, especially in the first movement, from the « shivering » cello effect to great tenderness. In the longer lines of the second movement, the players melded intensity with delicacy. And they imbued the almost trivial dance theme of the finale with weight and solemnity through its many incarnations, without ever neglecting its inherent good humor.

Finckel’s transcription of Franck’s Sonata in A for Violin and Piano had more warmth but less sweetness than the original. The Recitativo sounded rather monochromatic, with cello and piano mostly in the same range, but the exceptional beauty of the finale produced a feeling that these players have a genuine partnership both onstage and off — an impression confirmed in their lovely encore of an excerpt from Chopin’s Cello Sonata.

— Mark J. Estren

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