Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider. Photo by Lars Gundersen.

Visiting conductor Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider laid down his baton and took up his violin to join members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in playing a superb evening of chamber music on Friday, November 5th.  Szeps-Znaider is a world-renowned virtuoso violinist, as well as a conductor, and he shone in his leading of two classics of the chamber repertoire:  Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A and Brahms’s String Sextet No. 1 in B Flat Major.

[Find out more about the music with the KDHX symphony preview.]

Now, neither of these works was written for a space so grand as Powell Hall;  they were intended for chambers—large rooms in noble palaces.  It was more than easy for Szeps-Znaider and his four (or five) colleagues to observe social distancing on that vast stage at Powell.  What a huge volume of space they faced!  But amazingly they filled the hall!  I think it was not so much the decibels that they drew from their instruments, but the quality and the clarity of their music which carried this beauty so satisfyingly to our ears.

Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet:
When he was thirty-three Mozart wrote this, his only completed clarinet quintet, for his friend and fellow Mason the brilliant clarinetist Anton Stadler.  Considering the financial and marital difficulties Mozart was suffering at this time the quintet is a surprisingly bright and happy work.  Chamber music has been called “the music of friends”.  Goethe described the string quartet as “four rational people conversing.”  These descriptions are so fitting to the conversational nature of this beautiful quintet. 

Scott Andrews on clarinet is the “first among equals” here, but Mozart gives each of the other voices generous, congenial shares of the score.  We hear in this piece not the common B-flat clarinet, but a clarinet in A—just a nudge lower in pitch.  This gives a lovely warm sense to the occasional luscious, liquid bubbling up from the lower register.  Andrews has such a pure, smooth timbre throughout!

Other instrumentalists are Mr. Szeps-Znaider and Erin Schreiber on violin, Jonathan Chu on viola, and Melissa Brooks on cello.  The balance among these instruments is simply perfect. 

There is sweet opening, with the clarinet singing above the strings.  We turn minor for a while.  There is the softest, gentlest cello pizzicato.   There is a general busyness without frenzy.

The second movement (larghetto) gives us a lovely, slow, melancholy clarinet melody over muted strings.   Thirdly comes a most graceful minuet.  And finally there is a merry, gently playful allegretto movement with each voice distinctly heard—a lovely minor viola passage (bravo Mr. Chu!). Mr. Szeps-Znaider’s first violin is absolutely slippery in its  scampering above.  There’s a merry chase, and finally the clarinet fades, fades down to a mere whisper. 

Such closely shared merriment  and sentiment!   What a real joy this work must be to play!

Brahms’ String Sextet:
Mr. Andrews, clarinetist, has left the stage to be replaced by an additional viola (Chris Tortillo) and an additional cello (Jennifer Humphreys).  This gives a mellower, darker feeling to the ensemble.  The sound is rich and deep.  All in all it is like a warm caress.

In the first movement we meet a four-note musical figure that is simple, but haunting—and it revisits us from time to time.  To me it says, “Fϋrchte dich nicht” (“be not afraid”).  I learned it from Kurt Weill, in “Happy End.”  Weill (and Brahms) took it from Bach’s funeral motet.  Bach took it from Jeremiah.

The movements proceed from slow, stately and mellow through pleasant and bright to almost a gallop.  Once again the balance among voices is quite splendid.

Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider is displaying quite dazzling gifts as conductor and violinist in his visit to St. Louis.  

Next at Powell Hall: Stéphane Denève conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and pianist Víkingur Ólafsson in Grieg’s Piano Concerto, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, and Carlos Simon’s “Fate Now Conquers.” Performances take place Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, November 13 and 14, at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center. There will also be a special Crafted Happy Hour performance of Beethoven’s Fifth on Friday, November 12, at 6:30 pm at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the UMSL campus.

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