Pascal Rogé et al @ New York Chamber Music Festival

The “official” music season usually does not start in New York until a couple of weeks after Labor Day, but there is still plenty to see and hear — and one of the best places to jump the gun is at Symphony Space, where the New York Chamber Music Festival has already launched their second season. Artistic and Executive Director Elmira Darvarova and her circle of artistic collaborators have again assembled a wide-ranging series of programs spanning a broad range of chamber repertoire.

Slower-than-expected recuperation from nose surgery forceded me to beg off the first few events in the festival, including performances by cellist Christine Walevska and New York Philharmonic principal trumpet Philip Smith, but I loaded up on analgesics late Monday afternoon in preparation for a program of French chamber and piano music featuring Pascal Rogé. He is best known on this side of the Atlantic for his deservedly acclaimed recordings of French piano music for Decca, but I also like his more recent recordings for Onyx and Oehms, particularly the Gershwin and Ravel concerto SACDs on the latter label with the RSO Wien conducted by Bertrand de Billy providing idiomatic, spirited accompaniment.

Symphony Space is, to be polite, not exactly the most richly reverberant venue in Manhattan; the front rows provide an intimate atmosphere with good sightlines, though the acoustics favor players further back on stage.

The program opened with Saint-Saëns’s charming Scherzo for Two Pianos, Op.87, with Rogé’s wife Ami on second piano. This is music with one foot unashamedly in the salon and the the other in the conservatory. Saint-Saëns’s detractors often carp about his music’s superficiality, but with the Rogés at the keyboard it is impossible not to succumb to this music’s charming melodies and balance of craftsmanship and wit.

Poulenc’s Cello Sonata, written in the late 1940s, is slightly craggier than his earlier solo sonatas and chamber music, but retains the composer’s charming style that is infused with just a touch of the Parisian music hall and jazz. Cellist Samuel Magill’s lean sound and Rogé’s rich palette sometimes seemed at odds, but did serve to shine a spotlight on the hairpin-turn changes in timbre and articulation. In the second movement Cavatine and the Finale, sets of themes sounded strikingly as if they could have been lifted from the chamber music of Prokofiev — then instantly morphed back into something unmistakably French.

Darvarova and Rogé took an equally daring approach to Debussy’s Violin Sonata. Stripped of romantic trappings and sentiment, Darvarova conjured an amazing array of timbres and sounds, consistently punctuated and supported by Rogé’s transparent and dynamic pianism. The work seemed more a gateway to Messiaen and an avant-garde generation to come than a culmination of Debussy’s oeuvre.

Don’t let the title “Sonatine” fool you — Maurice Ravel’s short three-movement work opened the second half of the recital with an abundance of energy and color, distilling the composer’s piano oeuvre into a pointed and compelling work. Rogé delivered the final Animé with a particularly impressive balance of color and pianistic control, unfolding with irresistable momentum in almost a single phrase.

The program concluded with a strongly expressive and, as with the Debussy, forward-looking vision of Ravel’s enormously demanding Trio.  The unanimity of Rogé, Darvarova and Magill was impressive, as was the clear but unexaggerated use of string instrument timbre.  I can’t recall hearing the Passacaille played with this much potency, and the daunting Finale generated not only goosebumps but an enormous — and gratifyingly warm — volume of sound.

The festival has scored a real coup with the participation of Pascal Rogé. He will be one of the performers in tonight’s program, including woirks by Schumann, Brahms, David Amram and Paul Chihara. Miss it at your own peril!

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