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CHAMBER REVIEW

Cellit Joel Cohen

CAPTIVATING DOHNANYI AND ELGAR IN UKIAH'S DEEP VALLEY CHAMBER CONCERT

by Terry McNeill
Saturday, February 4, 2012

If the nearly 300 people at a Feb. 4 Ukiah concert are an indication, the Deep Valley Chamber Music series has finally arrived. One of the best-kept secrets in North Coast music, Deep Valley has been presenting increasingly challenging repertoire and first-cabin musicians since 2008, and the ďMidwinterĒconcert in First Presbyterian Church was provocative and ultimately satisfying.

Provocative? Chamber music by Dohnanyi (his Serenade for String Trio) and Elgar (his A Minor Piano Quintet) are rarely-played items, and the Brahms Cello Sonata wasnít one of the usual two, but a transcription for cello of his first Violin Sonata in G. Redwood Valley cellist Joel Cohen and Ukiah pianist Elena Casanova began with the Brahms, always curious because the so familiar and rich-hued themes have to take on the celloís resonance and the lower (darker) pitch. Recent hearings of the work, by violinist Alexander Barantshik in Santa Rosa (G Major) and cellist Joyce Geeting (D Major), were not offset by the Ukiah performance. Mr. Cohen, oddly playing from score, has a lovely bottom-end sound, favored by the hallís acoustics, and adopted a brisk and no-nonsense tempo in the vivace. This was not a note-perfect performance and a page-turnerís slip affected more than once the ensemble. Ms. Casanova was an aggressive partner throughout, not bass heavy in the coda but redeeming herself in the final two chords.

The pianist brought out seductive inner voices in the lovely second movement Adagio and here the partnership was excellent, Mr. Cohenís dynamic control and double stops deftly executed. In the finale the thematic connection with the first movement was explored in a magisterial way, the quiet ending enhanced by an elegant cello grace note in the last bar.

Dohanyiís music is often allied with Brahms, but in the 1904 Op. 10 Serenade there was none of the German master, but a lot of Dvorak and Magyar influences. Joining Mr. Cohen were violist Roy Malan and violist Elizabeth Prior to craft a riveting and convincing reading of the five-movement work. Ensemble was impeccable throughout, the long line of the viola in the Romanza and pizzicato duet of cello and viola over Mr. Malanís soaring violin captivating. Often I have heard a sharp edge to Mr. Malanís tone, especially in the high registers, but the acoustics were warm and direct here and his playing all evening was exemplary. The Scherzo was a presto romp with Mr. Cohenís cello singing out, the dramatic playing underscored by many false cadences. Inter-movement applause seemed finally appropriate.

The Serenade tends to wander structurally, but in a way musician love (as in Schubertís ďheavenly lengthĒ) and in this performance highlighting the composerís consummate invention. A propulsive Rondo concluded the work, Mr. Malanís clean scale playing carrying to the back of the hall and ultimately bringing at the final chords the audience to its feet in appreciation.

The long intermission in a long concert featured only Elgarís Op. 84 Quintet, and in the first movement itís a very un-Edwardian Elgar. Ms. Casanova returned to the piano, joined by Hayward-based violinist Philip Santos and the string trio, to play a surging first movement. Here the composer lurking was perhaps Franck, and the feeling of a romantic approach of 1880 palpable in a movement from 1918. Itís easy but dangerous to conclude that Elgarís Quintet grew out of the carnage of the War, but if itís there at all, it would be in the opening chordal and chromatic Moderato-Allegro. Ms. Casanova pushed the pace and incisively contrasted the opening march and the curious ďpalm courtĒ waltz sections. Major and minor alternate a lot here and Ms. Priorís voice leading was exquisite.

A more familiar Elgar, of the Enigma Variations and Violin Concerto, returns in the Adagio which was elegantly played. Mr. Santos and Mr. Malan sounded as one and Mr. Cohen played the piano phrases with great subtlety. In this groupís hands the movement took on a threnody character, the interplay of vocal lines attainting radiance. A triumphant finale, modulating often, was demanding on each performer with sweeping arpeggio patterns that required Ms. Casanovaís most concentrated playing of the evening. The massive final chords, from the low cello and the pianistís bottom E to the high strings, resounded to loud applause and cheers.

Though each of concertís musicians performs constantly all over the North Bay area, they seldom have schedules that allow them to perform together, making the virtuosity of the instrumental mix an affecting achievement.