A bevy of music lovers in the Recital Hall of the University of North Carolina Greensboro heard an eclectic program in the final concert of the Rice Toyota Sitkovetsky and Friends Chamber Music Series. The Master Works series piano soloist, Inna Faliks, was heard in chamber music for wind quintet by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), a trio piece for strings by Franz Schubert (1797-1828), and a spectacular keyboard solo by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Faliks is the new Head of Piano and Associate Professor of Piano at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music besides her international tours as a soloist.

Beethoven’s Quintet in E-flat, Op. 16 for Piano, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, and Bassoon opened the concert. The composer modeled his quintet of 1797 closely after Mozart’s K. 452 of 1784 for the same instrumentation and in the same key. Both composers wrote with themselves in mind as the keyboard player. Beethoven melded the traditional serenade-like sonority of the winds with his own innovative piano style. It is in three movements. A long, slow and measured introduction leads into the first movement in which each of its three themes is presented by the piano before being taken up by the winds. A long phrased melody, introduced by the piano, dominates the slow movement. Beethoven toys with keys, embellishes the theme along with added countermelodies and adds contrapuntal touches. Expectations of a standard rondo form are tweaked in the bubbly and vivacious finale.

Pianist Faliks was joined by oboist Ashley Barret, clarinetist Kelly Burke, bassoonist Carol Bernstorf, and Bob Campbell on horn, all principals of their sections in the Greensboro Symphony. The balance between the keyboard and the wind players as a group and individually was excellent. Kaliks’ beaming expression reflected her evident joy at the give and take between the players. Her refined tone, phrasing, and care for rhythm were models of Beethoven style. What a broad palette of color was evident as each instrument either paired with the piano, blended with one or more winds, or acted as a wind quartet! Intonation was excellent and each player played with enthusiasm and complete technical mastery.

Schubert’s Trio in E-flat, D. 897 is rarely heard in concert. It was published posthumously by Anton Diabelli in 1845 as Op. 148 with the spurious nickname “Nocturne.” On the autograph score, Schubert wrote “Adagio” while “nocturne” was added by an unknown hand. The paper is the same as he used for the Piano Trio in E-flat, D. 929 and the fresh copy for Die Winterreise. These, plus the earlier Piano Trio in B-flat, D. 898, were composed around the same time leading many to date the “Nocturne” to 1827 and widespread speculation it might have been a rejected slow movement for the earlier B-flat trio. Its music seems to anticipate the heavenly slow movement of the great Quintet in C, D. 956, while the future quintet’s finale is hinted at by the nocturne’s use of pizzicato. Documentation is weak for the theory that Schubert took the melody from a pile driver crew’s work song in Gmunden in the lake country east of Salzburg. A vigorous central section is surrounded with a serene slow melody.

Faliks was joined by music director Dmitri Sitkovetsky on violin and cellist Brooks Whitehouse from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and the Winston-Salem Symphony. Faliks’ fine rolling arpeggio chords were followed by the seraphic blended sound of the strings spinning out an almost timeless melody. Intonation, dynamics, and phrasing were perfect. Balance was remarkably equal during the turbulent middle section, while the return of the ethereal song was as immaculate as before.

The suite Gaspard de la Nuit is one of the most challenging works in the solo-piano repertoire. Solo works are rare in this series but the presence of Faliks, who so clearly has the “chops” (and then some), it was a real treat to hear this rarely performed work live.

Ravel aimed to surpass the difficulty of Islamey (1869) by Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) which out-Liszts Liszt! Ravel was inspired by three poems, “Ondine,” “Le Gibet,” and “Scarbo” by Aloysius Bertrand whose vivid imagery was a forerunner of the Symbolist movement. Ondine is a sea sprite and her story parallels the plot of Dvořák’s Rusalka. The melody emerges within a rhythmic-harmonic motive and reappears “again and again enveloped in variegated swirls of glistening arpegiated arabesques” (John Gillespie: Five Centuries of Keyboard Music). “Le Gibet” portrays a corpse swinging from a gibbet, looking reddened in the setting sun. The atmosphere is maintained by Ravel’s use of “a repeated octave B-flat,” suggesting a death bell, surrounded by a mournful melody based upon seventh and ninth chords. “Scarbo” depicts a grotesque dwarf, like something out of the tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann. It is a fantastic scherzo in which two themes, one powerfully rhythmic and a second, gay and dance like, are given glittering, pedal-to-the-metal treatment before fading to a whisper of sound.

Like her GSO opening night performance of her encore (Rachmaninoff’s Corelli Variations), Faliks kept listeners in open mouth wonder with her seemingly magical keyboard wizardry. From my seat I could not see the abundance of crossed hands listeners were commenting about as they left after her repeated curtain calls. Her palette of refined color, dynamics, and tone were breathtaking. I hope to hear her in future GSO seasons. She has recorded the Ravel on MRS Classics Records (B002AH970Q).

As part of the Greensboro Symphony Guild‘s outreach, a large contingent of string players from Walter M. Williams High School in Burlington, under the direction of Veronica Allen, played in the lobby before the concert. It is good to see music in the public schools getting strengthened.