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Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2010

Frankly Music Honors Chopin and Schumann

Classical Review

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The year 2010 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of two major composers: Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann. Perhaps because both are heard so regularly, there were not enormous celebrations. It was good to ponder these two 19th-century giants at a Frankly Music concert last week at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.

As is the custom, Frank Almond spoke casually and interestingly about his subjects, including the lack of common ground between these contemporaries. Though they admired one another and met once, Chopin and Schumann seem from different planets. In the broadest sense they shared a love of melody, though each conjured it in vastly different ways.

Violist Max Mandel and pianist William Wolfram gave a lovely performance of Schumann's Mrchenbilder, a seldom-heard set of brief pieces, related in spirit to the composer's short character pieces for piano, as well as his art songs.

Wolfram offered three piano works by Chopin. His colorful playing especially came to life in the Grand Polonaise Brillante, with the crispness and clarity that romantic music always needs but sometimes lacks, along with sweeping passion. I admired Wolfram's sparing use of the pedal, creating sharply drawn phrases. A couple of times he may have roared the Steinway a little bigger than the charming, small recital hall could handle, but the rich sound was splendid.

Schumann's Piano Quartet, the longest and most substantial piece on the program, featured Almond, Mandel, Wolfram and cellist Stephen Balderston. This is great music and it was great to hear it. And where else would we hear it in concert in Milwaukee except at Frankly Music? There were many wonderful moments, and a few spots that sounded a bit colorless.

Another composer's anniversary in 2010, Samuel Barber's 100th, was celebrated in an encore. Almond, Balderston and Wolfram gave what is believed to be the first public performance of a recently discovered two-minute trio, "Commemorative March," written for the very small, private 1940 wedding of the composer's sister. With Barber's typical simplicity and a haunting melody, this is a little gem.