A Delectable Schubert Programme in Seattle

Schubert: Onyx Chamber Players (David White, piano; James Garlick, violin; Meg Brennand, cello); J. Melvin Butler (viola); Stephen Schermer (contrabass); Downstairs at Town Hall, Seattle, 29.5.2011 (BJ)

This was a delectable program, consisting of Schubert’s E-flat-major Piano Trio and his “Trout” Quintet. There was much to enjoy also in the performances, but the curious thing about the concert was that the great and profound trio emerged considerably less magical than the relatively – if only relatively – lightweight quintet.

It may be that the problematic acoustics of the room – not the main Town Hall auditorium, but a much smaller and low-ceilinged room downstairs – had a lot to do with this. There is a good deal of assertive, large-limbed writing in the trio. The Onyx players took an appropriately forceful approach to it, bestowing particular care on crisp accentuation, but the result, especially in full chords on the piano, tended to come across too aggressively. This was a pity, because David White showed in quieter passages both here and in the quintet that he commands a wide range of often delicate expression.

Joined by J. Melvin Butler and Stephen Schermer on viola and contrabass after intermission, the Onyx musicians, along with their highly competent guests, laid more stress on the quietness that informs long stretches of the “Trout.” White dealt especially well with the frequent passages of octaves near the top of the keyboard, which he emphasized in his amusing and illuminating pre-performance remarks. James Garlick made a beautifully pure sound throughout the evening, though his intonation was not impeccable. And about the Onyx cellist, Meg Brennand, I don’t quite know what to say. She was much more successful in the quintet than she had been in the trio, offering many touches of sensitive playing, especially in what may be called the tenor register. It’s hard for a critic, however, to judge on one hearing, in one hall, how much of a cellist’s sound is attributable to the player and how much to the instrument played. But there was enough artistry in Ms. Brennand’s playing to suggest that it may well have been her cello rather than her technique that militated against the production of any really warm, luminous tone. There was something costive about the sounds that came from her instrument, and I suspect that she would benefit significantly from the possession of a better one.

Still and all, two wonderful and well-contrasted Schubert chamber works in one evening made for much pleasurable satisfaction – and the “Trout” Andante in particular, eloquently phrased and masterfully restrained in sonority, exerted the authentic gooseflesh effect that great music can produce.

Bernard Jacobson