With well more than a hundred Academy students hanging over their seats at the side of the hall, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed like their equivalents of more than 70 years ago in The Red Shoes, nine of the world's finest musicians took on the formidable challenges of the Trout Quintet, the first Piano Trio and Der Hirt auf dem Felsen. In the process, they showed what can be done with limited rehearsal time, demonstrating what they had been teaching during the day, and entertained a highly enthusiastic full house. It was the first of four MasterFest concerts that are highlighting the fifth annual Verão Clássico Music Festival and Academy launched Sunday night, an all Schubert feast in the perfect chamber music hall that is the Pequeno Auditorio of the massive Centro Cultural de Belém.

Schubert's “Trout” Quintet © Rita Carmo
Schubert's “Trout” Quintet
© Rita Carmo

The Trout was a delightfully sparkling affair, taken at moderate tempos, perfectly balanced among the five instruments, with an abundance of felicitous touches by all concerned and played with such an infectious spirit that even the few flaws were always a surprise cleansed by the music's rushing currents.

Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro, the Festival's founding director, seemed to be particularly happy. He was light-fingered, fleet and delicate without being precious. His colleagues matched him, each in their own way. Whether it was her immaculate up-bow strokes in the Andante or her articulating fingers throughout, Mihaela Martin, a virtuoso taking on the mantle of a chamber musician with exquisite, understated leadership, made it quite clear that the greatest musicians practice what they teach. The Andante gave full voice to the big viola and cello solos, and still the ending was simply magical. Kyril Zlotnikov, the Jerusalem Quartet's cellist, and Janne Saksala, since 2008 First Principal double bass with the Berlin Philharmonic, gave a big gruff hug to their four warning shots in the Scherzo, and Saksala introduced his little solo towards the end with a charming portamento.

The Andantino theme and variations movement began with the lower strings making a beautifully seated cushion of warmth under Martin's simple phrasing of the beloved tune. As the variations progressed, the striking quality of the players came to the fore without disturbing the flow; Tatjana Masurenko's amazing palette of colors and drop dead gorgeous sound showed just how much Schubert loved the viola, and Zlotnikov in his show-stopping variation proved that less can really be more.

There was even an unexpected life lesson moment when Saksala demonstrated his "what to do with a recalcitrant fold-out page" technique. Hint: look like you're playing unperturbed for a few nanoseconds until you can get the page properly turned. As a lovely fillip towards the end of a jaunty Allegro giusto Pinto-Ribeiro played one little arpeggiated chord as a brief heart-stopping moment of beauty, giving a personal touch to the final stretch run.

Pascal Moraguès, Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro and Anna Samuil © Rita Carmo
Pascal Moraguès, Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro and Anna Samuil
© Rita Carmo

The B flat Piano Trio opened with a bold, uncomplicated tempo, avoiding trying to get too much into Schubert's head and instead letting the music play itself, as much as possible in music so rich in solos. Jack Liebeck's silver sound and Zlotnikov's gold were embraced by Katya Apekisheva, co-founder the London Piano Festival (the fourth edition scheduled for October), in a vast dreamy, passionate landscape that she made to flow along arcs of musical thought and motion. Zlotnikov played the big tune in the first movement, for example, as not merely a pleasant interlude but as music of great nobility reminiscent of another famous cello melody with the same kind of intervallic feature, the second theme of Dvořák's Cello Concerto. Although the overall balance was not as carefully judged as it had been in the Trout, the music was again over too soon.

Ending the concert with one of Schubert's biggest and latest song creations after opening with one of his smallest and earliest, Anna Samuil took a big, even operatic approach which worked because she was inhabiting the role so fully, convincingly, and sumptuously. Pascal Moraguès, who at the age of 18 was invited by Daniel Barenboim to become principal clarinet in the Orchestre de Paris, played his role as a sort of Pan or perhaps the shepherd of the poem to perfection, playing without music and providing a sort of instrumental foil to Samuil while trading elegant riffs with Pinto-Ribeiro.

Among the highlights of the three remaining MasterFest concerts will be a rare sighting of Hummel's Quintet for the same forces as the Trout Quintet, Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio, and as the gran [sic] finale, Mozart's Gran Partita led by British oboist Nicholas Daniels.

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