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Review: Bendix-Balgley, Weiss excel at ambitious Chamber Music Pittsburgh recital

| Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015, 12:27 p.m.

Lovers of classical music were treated to an exceptional experience on Nov. 30 when violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley and pianist Orion Weiss teamed up on an ambitious recital for Chamber Music Pittsburgh.

The concert was the first of a series Bendix-Balgley will play in Pittsburgh this year, after leaving the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra to be concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic.

Each of the musicians played superbly, but it was their rapport that lifted the concert to a higher level at which the character of each piece was fully realized. Their interplay served the music moment to moment, as when a single note from Weiss was fit perfectly to complete a phrase played by Bendix-Balgley. The expressive precision and richness of those moments illuminated the issues at play in every work on the program.

The concert began with the relatively unfamiliar Violin Sonata by Czech composer Leos Janacek, who is best known for his operas, a few orchestral works such as “Sinfonietta” which Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre performed in October, and his string quartets.

The Violin Sonata was begun before World War I broke out, with revisions not being completed until three years after it ended. Janacek's music is unconventional if not quirky in its sequences of ideas, created out of a highly personal absorption of folk melody, rhythm and harmony.

The vivid performance by Bendix-Balgley and Weiss made the first movement a kaleidoscopic sequence, starting with an intensely expressive violin line and continuing with colorful and forceful piano collaboration.

In fact the exquisite warmth at moments in the first movement and the ensuing “Balada” of the Janacek whet my appetite for Johannes Brahms' Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major, which completed the first half.

The songful Brahms sonata was the perfect answer to Janacek's agitation. Weiss drew ideal sonorities from the Steinway grand piano he played, with strong deep and mid bass so important in Brahms, and wonderful nuances in voicing.

Bendix-Balgley's music making was transporting. Such golden tone, fabulous range of vibratos, and heart-felt phrasing made Brahms' music touch the heart as one hopes it will.

The major work after intermission was Richard Strauss' Violin Sonata. Strauss began as a classically oriented composer of symphonies and sonatas. The Violin Sonata caught him just before his turn to symphonic poems, the other major line in 19th century romantic composition. It is bursting with ideas which anticipate his music to come, but still in classical form.

The heroic power that begins the sonata was imposing, but again it was the warmth of both performers that elevated the performance and made this piece far more rewarding than it usually is. Both performers thrived on the humor in the final movement.

Four short pieces provided a welcome change of pace after the three weighty sonatas. All were arrangements by legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz.

Bendix-Balgley actually leaned into George Gershwin's “It Ain't Necessarily So” more than the Heifetz recording. Joseph Achron's “Dance Improvisation on Hebrew Themes” had energy and idiomatic flair, no surprise given Bendix-Balgley's long involvement with Jewish folk music. He'll give the world premiere of his Klezmer Violin Concerto with Manfred Honeck and the symphony in June.

The music making concluded with delicious poise in Claude Debussy's “Beau soir.”

Fortunately, the concert was recorded by WQED/FM.

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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