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Adam Neiman works magic in Mendelssohn Sextet

Friday evening's Skaneateles Festival concert, nicknamed "Happy Birthday, Felix," might just as well have been labeled "The Adam Neiman Show." The brilliant young pianist took on the lion's share of the work Friday, participating in three of the four works programmed and standing squarely at the center of attention in Mendelssohn's Sextet for Piano and Strings.

The program began in quiet fashion with a Busoni piano arrangement of J.S. Bach's Chorale Prelude, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. Originally written for organ, whose long, sustaining pedal (bass) tones are well suited to settings of chorale melodies, this Chorale Prelude gains nothing from the switch to piano. If you're going to program a work such as this at First Presbyterian Church, with its magnificent pipe organ, why not do it as originally intended?

Unlike the preceding arrangement, Bach's Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D Minor, commonly played on harpsichord, is well suited to the piano. Neiman navigated the formidable passagework in the opening Fantasia with remarkable clarity, using the sustaining pedal only sparingly and achieving an evenness of touch throughout the turbulent scalewise passages and wild arpeggiations. His meditative shaping of the slow, rhapsodic section that followed cast a spell on the listener that lasted until the start of the strict fugue that concluded the work.

The String Quartet in D Major by Danish composer Niels Gade (GAH-duh) is an obscure work by an obscure contemporary of Mendelssohn. Midway through the first movement, it was apparent why this work has been neglected for so long.

Thickly-textured throughout, with all four instruments playing together virtually all of the time, there's little relief to the listener's ear in terms of contrast of sonority. Moreover, there's precious little thematic development or motivic play to build up convincing dramatic contrasts. As a result, the piece never gets below the surface of the pleasant themes that beg to be expanded and manipulated. Even a top-notch performance by a first-rate ensemble such as the Parker Quartet couldn't turn this pumpkin into a carriage. In short, this piece was "Gade-awful."

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