By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • April 22, 2008
The Great Hall of St. Paul's Rock Creek Church is surrounded by a graveyard: a good setting for music that delves into murder, revenge and the darker corners of the human heart. So perhaps it was appropriate that the Fessenden Ensemble, one of Washington's most consistently interesting chamber groups, presented a program there on Sunday that focused on Samuel Barber's dark, blood-drenched "Medea," Op. 23, "Cave of the Heart."
The work is not a literal retelling of the Greek myth, in which the sorceress Medea kills her own children to punish her unfaithful husband. Rather, it's a psychological portrayal of ordinary people caught, as Barber puts it, "in the nets of jealousy and destructive love." It's a gripping work, shifting restlessly between a serene surface and the dark, unsettling currents that surge underneath, and it seethes with a frightening amount of rage. But conductor Anna Binneweg took a rather clinical approach to the score, producing an efficient reading that was admirably clear but lacked a compelling sense of the inner turmoil.
More satisfying (and approachable) were the two other works on the all-Barber program. "Serenade for Strings," Op. 1, from 1929 (written when the composer was just 19), is a heartfelt and shamelessly romantic work, youthful in spirit but impressively sophisticated, and it got a fine reading from the ensemble's string players. Richer pleasures, though, were to be found in Barber's "Summer Music," Op. 31, for woodwind quintet. Written with the lightness and evanescent beauty of a dream, it's a luminous, enchanting piece that received a beautifully calibrated performance by the Fessenden players