The Raleigh Chamber Music Guild continued its 69th season with an enterprising program featuring a fairly exotic instrumental ensemble. Instead of the usual group based on a keyboard and strings, the Kavafian-Schub-Shifrin Trio makes use of both violin and viola as well as a range of clarinets. Clarinetist David Shifrin suggested their ensemble was the answer to the trivia question “what trio consists of three musicians and five instruments?” The artists are long-time members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and have frequently appeared in the Triangle and Triad as members of that group as well as other ensembles. Violinist Ani Kavafian has appeared as a soloist with her sister Ida, who more often than not is heard playing the viola. Besides having appeared here as both a soloist and a chamber musician, pianist André-Michel Schub served as Artistic Director of the Eastern Music Festival from 1999-2002.

The Trio in E-flat for clarinet, viola, and piano, K.498, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart opened the concert. Composed in 1786, it is nicknamed the “Kegelstatt” (“Skittles)” Trio because it was supposedly composed while Mozart played a game of skittles with his friend, the virtuoso clarinetist Anton Stadler, who premiered the trio with Mozart playing viola and the composer’s love-interest and student, Franziska von Jacquin, playing piano. Until this concert I had only heard Ani Kavafian play violin so her full, rich viola tone was a welcome treat. The combination of viola and clarinet creates a dark, lustrous quality, enriching the work’s character. Shifrin’s clarinet sounded gorgeous with a warm tone and a seamless melodic line. Schub’s piano was perfectly balanced against his colleagues and the trio played with great elegance, precision, and style. Mozart’s scores suffer no errors and provide no cover.

The greatest work in the repertoire for this type of trio is Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano by Béla Bartók. It was jointly commissioned by violinist Joseph Szigeti and clarinetist Benny Goodman. Bartók was a very proud man in very straitened circumstances, and his friends, such as Szigeti or Fritz Reiner, were always looking for discreet ways to help him financially. Goodman, the King of Swing, agreed to help Szigeti with this plan. Originally composed in two movements, “Verbunkos” (“Recruiting Dance)” and “Sebes” (“Fast Dance)”; a middle movement, “Pihenö” (“Relaxation”), was added when the three recorded the work in New York in 1939.

Batrók calls for the use of a mistuned violin (G#-D-A-E-flat) for the first 30 bars of the last movement before the violin switches back to a normally tuned instrument. Kavafian quipped that airlines really love to accommodate a string player with three instruments, 2 violins and viola! (She then thanked local luthier John Montgomery for the loan of the viola used in the Mozart and the second retuned violin.) Bartók sought to evoke the sound of folk instruments, so Kavafian had asked Montgomery for his brashest violin. The opening movement moved from a march to a brilliant mixture of swirling roulades and intertwining melodic lines. Shifrin’s cadenza was ablaze with swagger and intensity. The quiet and eerie slow movement was typical of the composer’s “night music.” Kavafian played up the brash village fiddle quality of the opening 30 bars to the hilt! Schub’s keyboard scintillated with bell-like tones, sparkling thrills, spare ostinatos, and glissandos. Shifrin used both A and B-flat clarinets, and his playing was stunning throughout.

Another composer in straitened circumstances was Igor Stravinsky, during WWI. He was in Switzerland and cut off from funds from his family estate in Russia. A wealthy Swiss amateur clarinetist, Werner Reinhardt, commissioned a theater piece, L’Histoire du Soldat, originally for narrator, dancers, and seven instruments (violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, and percussion). Along with ragtime and waltzes, Stravinsky tried to incorporate jazz strictly based on his study of scores, not experience of real, improvised jazz in performance. The plot is a Faustian tale of a soldier who trades his violin to the Devil in exchange for worldly success, especially on the stock market(!). The full original work has the Devil tricking the soldier out of his violin a second time, but the Suite, arranged for clarinet trio by the composer and given to Reinhardt, ends happily with the soldier regaining his violin. The violin and clarinet parts are little changed in the Suite but the keyboard has to “cover” the other five parts! Kavafian, Schub, and Shifrin played the piece brilliantly, with “sparks” coming from the vivid give-and-take among the three.

William Bolcom is a wonderful performer as well as one of the finest and most accessible of contemporary American composers. Shifrin was one of the players, along with the late violinist Sergiu Luca and the composer/pianist, who premiered Afternoon Cakewalk, a suite of rags by Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb, James Scott, and Bolcom, in 1979. It calls for the use of three clarinets (A, B-flat, and E-flat), adding much to the color and tone of six essentially rag settings, “Easy Winner,” “Heliotrope Bouquet,” “Ethiopia Rag,” “Frog Legs Rag,” “Graceful Ghost,” and “Incineratorag!” During the ragtime revival of the 1970s, rags were often played too fast. Kavafian-Schub-Shifrin played them at just the right tempo and gave each a strong characterization.

RCMG Education Update

RCMG has always been dedicated to fostering the musical education of the next generation. Schub held a morning master class for the Guild at which three ensembles performed. Before the concert, these groups of local students played excerpts of chamber music for early arrivers. Kent Lyman of Meredith had coached pianists Katherine Barton and Elisabeth Bjork, who played the opening “Allegro” from Mozart’s Sonata in C for Piano Four Hands, K.521. (Bjork is also an intern reviewer for CVNC.) Two groups from the Mallarmé Youth Chamber Orchestra demonstrated promising facility in music for keyboard and strings. Yoram Youngerman coached violinist Taisuke Yasuda, violist Emi Mizobuchi, cellist Brendan Case, and pianist Cissy Yu in the last movement of a real rarity, Mendelssohn’s Piano Quartet No. 1, Op.1. Duke-based composer Stephen Jaffe coached violinist Rebecca Telford-Marx, cellist Emily Telford-Marx, and his daughter, pianist Elana Jaffe, in the first movement of Brahms’ beloved Trio in B-flat.

The Steinway piano used was formerly owned by Maxine Swalin; she willed it to Al and Sue Jenkins, who in turn donated it to the City of Raleigh for use in the lobby of the performing arts center.