Now in its eighth season, ChamberFest Cleveland has steadily evolved as a top-drawer celebration of chamber music and innovative programming – and more than amply fills the void for local concertgoers as The Cleveland Orchestra breaks before its summer season. The brainchild of Franklin Cohen (principal clarinet of TCO from 1976-2015) and daughter Diana (currently concertmaster of the Calgary Philharmonic), the two-week festival’s programs offer a remarkably diverse selection of repertoire with each evening centered around a common theme. I caught Tuesday night’s performance, humorously – and quite appropriately – styled as “Hungary for Music”, taking place at the Cleveland Institute of Music’s Mixon Hall, an ideal venue for chamber music with its fine acoustics, intimate proportions, and striking glass-backed stage.

ChamberFest ensemble plays Dohnányi's Sextet
© Gary Adams

It’s only apt for a Hungarian evening to begin with Liszt. Of his thirteen symphonic poems, only Les Préludes turns up with any regularity nowadays, a shame as they constitute a substantial body of work by the man who virtually established the genre. This evening, however, attention was given to Orpheus, presented in a transcription for piano trio by Saint-Saëns, who would note how Liszt’s symphonic poems paved the way for his own Danse macabre – which Liszt would in turn transcribe for solo piano. Gracefully arpeggiated material in the piano (Roman Rabinovich) opened, deftly imitating the harp of the original orchestration. Matters proceeded stately and solemn, as if in deep reverence to the titular figure. I was struck by the clarity in the upper register of the violin (Nathan Meltzer), contrasted by the resonance of the cello (Nicholas Canellakis). The texture grew passionate but never showy, ending on an ethereal chord progression.

While the program was otherwise firmly rooted in Romanticism, the second selection was by far the oddball out, namely Péter Eötvös’ Thunder for solo timpani, dating from 1993. Commanding the single instrument on stage was Alexander Cohen, who serves alongside his sister in the Calgary Philharmonic. Much of the work was improvised, and a panoply of extended techniques were used throughout, often rendering the timbre almost unrecognizable – striking the rim, using various mallets and/or the “wrong” end, placing a piece of metal on the membrane, emphasizing the space between pitches while Cohen altered the tuning via the foot pedal, and most strikingly, vocalizations directed into the drum. A brief work, but one which made a forceful impact.

Alexander Cohen plays Eötvös' Thunder
© Gary Adams

Ironically, the most patently Hungarian work of the evening came from the only non-Hungarian composer, Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. Eight selections were given in their original conception for piano four hands, with Rabinovich being joined by Juho Pohjonen – and opting for a somewhat different selection and sequence than in the printed program. The duo gave the dances a passionate and energetic workout, yet at times I still found myself wanting even more firepower. The intricacies were cleanly negotiated, including frequent hand-crossings, as if twenty fingers at work wasn’t already an impressive sight. A wide range of moods were conveyed, from charming elegance to the brooding as especially in No. 4 (also noted for its flexible rubato); concluding the segment was the perennial favorite that is No. 5.

Roman Rabinovich and Juho Pohjonen play Brahms' Hungarian Dances
© Gary Adams

Dohnányi is a name of much resonance in Cleveland, with Christoph von Dohnányi The Cleveland Orchestra’s music director laureate; at present, matters turned towards the conductor’s grandfather, Ernő. Despite its late date of 1935, the Sextet is still very much in the Romantic tradition. Augmenting the trio of program’s opening selection were violist Jessica Bodner, French horn William Caballero, and Franklin Cohen himself – a colorful canvas with which the composer worked wonders. The Allegro appassionato was marked by a full-bodied orchestral sonority, an impressive essay with the six musicians fully committed to conveying the composer’s mastery of form and color. A dreamy theme opened the Intermezzo, giving way to a startling march in the piano, punctuated by horn and clarinet, with the strings subsequently joining in for arresting effect. The theme of the following Allegro con sentimento boasted a lyrical presentation in the clarinet; cast in variations (a favorite form for Dohnányi, his Variations on a Nursery Tune remains one of his more enduring works), matters led without pause to the finale wherein all seriousness was left behind – the playful, spunky writing was given with a panache sustained through the commanding final flourish.