Sunday, March 17, 2013


St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
March 16

Splendid ensemble work with spotty solos.

Apollo’s Fire rolled out the A-team for the second of its winter Fireside Concerts: Music Director Jeannette Sorrell on harpsichord, violinist Olivier Brault, cellist René Schiffer and Baroque flute specialist Kathie Stewart. Like the program juxtaposing Bach and Telemann, the results were mixed – and presented in reverse order. “In honor of Bach,” Sorrell explained with a mischievous smile.

Starting from the bottom, then, the group opened with the first of two Telemann quartets, No. 12 in E minor from his “Paris” series. Perhaps because of the improvisatory nature of some passages, particularly in the opening and closing movements, the sound didn’t quite gel until late in the piece. The trademark of Apollo’s Fire’s sound is a light, airy quality which was charming in the middle movements. But the organic core that characterizes the group’s best ensemble work was in short supply.

Schiffer had the stage to himself for Bach’s Suite No. 2 in D minor, and played straight from the heart. Much of the phrasing was uniquely his, as were the variations in tempo and emphasis. This took some of the energy out of the piece, which sounded labored, even leaden at times. Schiffer is a skilled player who was perhaps overly self-absorbed as a soloist, too deep into the work’s moody atmospherics to come up for air. Still, it’s always a treat to hear Bach’s solo cello works given a focused performance.

The mood lightened after intermission with one of Bach’s flute sonatas (BWV 1034, in E minor), a trio that showcased fine, fluid work by Stewart, with Sorrell and Schiffer providing basso continuo. The group’s buoyant sound served the piece well, and the three players worked off each other expertly. Stewart provided a spirited lead, and was called back to the stage for an extra and well-deserved hand.

Brault approached Bach’s sublime Ciaccona from Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor with a focused intensity that matched Schiffer’s – and the same latitude in interpretation. This piece is a serious test of technical skills, so it wasn’t surprising that Brault was off-pitch at times. Not much, and not often, and there was no mistaking the passion in his playing. He was particularly good at creating colors and contrasts, and finding some sweet emotional moments in the intricate score. But at its best this virtuoso work is transcendent, and Brault never quite hit those heights.

The full quartet was back for the concluding Telemann Paris Quartet No. 1, a marvelously inventive piece with an unorthodox structure and changing tempos. It provided the most captivating performance of the concert – emotionally expressive, technically tight, with a bright tone and agile playing featuring some nimble work by Stewart. The musicians clearly liked the piece and enjoyed playing it, adding an extra effervescence.

More of the full ensemble and less solo work would have made for a more satisfying evening, at least in this critic’s opinion. But that shouldn’t be taken as a complaint. This group of players has earned their time in the spotlight, as well as the freedom to put their individual stamps on well-known works. And who else in town makes themselves available after the performance to meet audience members and hear their reactions? It’s a generous gesture and part of what has made Apollo’s Fire so successful, in Cleveland and throughout the country.

For more on Kathie Stewart:

For a preview of the next Apollo’s Fire concert:

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