Pickup ensemble shines in sextets

Pamela Frank
Washington Post

By Robert Battey

Pickup chamber music groups are like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get. So the tight ensemble and stylistic cohesion on display Wednesday at the Library of Congress was not a foregone conclusion.

To be sure, the artists all had top pedigrees, led by violinist Pamela Frank. She and her husband, Alexander Simionescu, took turns leading sextets by Schoenberg and Brahms. Their colleagues — violists Dimitri Murrath and Nokuthula Ngwenyama, and cellists Edward Arron and Peter Wiley — all knew what to do, whom to listen to and how to blend.

In Schoenberg’s “Verklaerte Nacht,” the group wrung every drop of anguish and ecstasy out of the music, the dynamic and expressive range extremely wide. Wiley daringly drew gruesome sounds out of his instrument in his one big solo (possibly not everyone understood that he was depicting the line “shuddering, I gave my body to the embrace of a stranger” from the poem that inspired the piece). Simionescu led the group well, though everyone was in sync naturally. The only weakness was the scrawny tone of Ngwenyama, whose solos were uncharacteristically wobbly. Arron is an outstanding player, but his face is more expressive than his actual sound; distractingly so.

In the Brahms “String Sextet No. 1, Op. 18,” Frank’s playing was the highlight; she had the most detailed musical ideas and the chops to carry them all out. Wiley’s solos were a bit sleepy-sounding but faultless, and the group solved all of the tricky balance problems in the thickly scored piece. No one ever had to force, and the pianissimos were like whispered confessions at dusk.

The program opened with Dvorak’s “Miniatures, Op. 75a,” with Frank, Simionescu and Murrath achieving miraculous intonation and blend in the final “Elegie.”