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The NC School of the Arts' Chamber Music Society programmers must be congratulated. On February 21, in Watson Hall, the generous Schubertiad program combined two of the composer's best-loved works with two choice rarities to form an irresistible menu. Schubert's fecund melodies and use of repetitions make maximum demands on musicianship if players are fully to realize the scores' vitality. There was never a hint of the prosaic or a leaden phrase all evening long. The performances were so enlivened that time seemed to fly by. The depth of the school's piano faculty was on display – and only two of the five keyboard artists were familiar to me.
The heart of Schubert is Song, whether in his huge output of Lieder or in the font of melodies in his chamber music, keyboard, and orchestral works. Tenor Glenn Siebert chose the opening six songs from Die schöne Müllerin, D.795, as a substantial appetizer. Though taken up by lower voices, the cycle was composed for the high voice, and Siebert's honeyed timbre, nuanced use of color and dynamics, and clear diction made one long to hear him do the full cycle. With apt facial expression and vocal inflexions, Siebert embodied the naïve young apprentice miller. With the sensitive accompaniment of pianist Allison Gagnon, and with tight control of dynamics and rhythm underpinning the text, the youngster's longing for love and his emotional instability were revealed. The Steinway's lid was on its shortest stick.
Hardly a season goes by without at least one performance of Schubert's Piano Trio No. 1, in B-flat, D.898. Even an every-day run-through, if well rehearsed, can be pleasing, but when it is played with the ardor and warmth that the NCSA faculty gave it, the listener's experience is transcendent. With the piano lid fully raised, pianist Eric Larsen kept the balance with the strings flawless at all dynamic levels. Tempos and phrasing were ideal, and the music was never allowed to drag. Violinist Kevin Lawrence's precise intonation was combined with warm tone and alert attacks. Whether loud or soft, the full rich baritone of Zvi Plesser's cello was always welcome.
Lovers of the variation form must have been thrilled with the rare chance to hear a live performance of Schubert's two-piano Variations on an Original Theme, in A-flat, D.814. The theme is given eight variations, all in A-flat except the fifth, which is in the minor mode. The interplay of shifting harmonics and independent inner voices were a constant delight. Taut ensemble and hair-trigger attacks characterized Karen Beres' and Robert Rocco's playing.
There was nothing stale about the interpretation of Schubert's "Trout" Quintet in A, D.667, which bubbled over with vitality. At the piano, Joanne Inkman set a good tempo that kept a fine sense of forward drive while also ensuring that the keyboard did not cover the strings. She used a finely graduated palette. These virtues were matched by her string partners – violinist Kevin Lawrence, violist Sally Peck, cellist Zvi Plesser, and Lynn Peters on the resonant double bass. Two extended duets linger in my memory – Peck's blending with Plesser in the second movement, and her blending with Lawrence in the third. Both string instruments' color and tone were seamlessly matched. It would be hard to imagine a more zest-filled performance. Such vital recreations prove that there is plenty of steam left in the old "war horses" of the repertory.