Chamber music that hits . . . and misses

The Vermeer Quartet, which is based in Chicago and summers here in this picture-book seaport town on the Maine coast, seems aptly named. Founded in 1970, the group has developed over the years the rich coloration, luminous figures, and emotive dark tones one associates with the Dutch painter. Their craftsmanship is very high, as three of them demonstrated recently in opening an unusual, if not entirely successful, program which was to include double bassist Timothy Pitts and pianist David Deveau.

The opening work, Schubert's Trio No. 1 in B-Flat, D.581, featured three of the four Vermeer players. The piece was treated like the precious cameo that it is -- with clarity of detail, richness of color, and an appropriately small frame. These musicians know when and how to play as one, and when to bring an individual line out into sudden relief. Lead violinist Shmuel Ashkenasi's virtuosic phrasing and intonation were very much in evidence. Bernard Zaslav (viola) and Marc Johnson (cello) provided simil arly gifted playing. Aside from a faint shrillness that crept in once or twice, this was a near note-perfect performance.

And so was the rest of what went on that night: note-perfect, but somehow lacking in that essential ingredient of good chamber playing -- an agreed upon center-ground from which everything proceeds. All of which became apparent after the two just-for-fun pieces for cello and double-bass by I. J. Pleyel and Rossini (Pitts played here with remarkable skill and sensitivity), when the five musicians settled in for one of the most popular and deceptively tricky pieces in the chamber repertoire.

The main event of the night, Schubert's ``Trout'' Quintet in A Major, D.667, calls for a double bass; and so, Pitts, who will be joining the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra this season, appeared for the evening instead of Pierre Menard, the quartet's other violinist.

The Trout makes heavy demands on both pianist and lead violinist, as well as everyone else; but it is the pianist that must carry the heat of the day, providing a leading edge to the rhythmic structure and a heartfelt lyricism at the center of the piece. I'm not sure that Deveau exhibited the forthrightness and willingness to croon that the Trout calls for. Consequently, the work never seemed to coalesce. We were always listening to good individual playing, some of it really quite extraordinary, but not

often enough to be energized chamber ensemble work.

There were high spots, however. The Andante came off winningly, especially the exchanges between Ashkenazy and Deveau and the duets between Zaslav and Johnson. In many ways, the Tema con Variazioni (theme and variations) offered the most successful stretch of the evening, which turned out to be an interesting one anyway.

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