Grieg, Schumann, Mozart, Schubert, Debussy, and Strauss at the Seattle Chamber Music Society

Seattle Chamber Music Society – Grieg, Schumann, Mozart, Schubert, Debussy, and Strauss: Various artists, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle. 11.7.2011 (BJ)

The pre-concert recital that, following Seattle Chamber Music Society tradition, preceded the concert proper offered a charming group of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces for piano, played by Anna Polonsky, and Schumann’s rarely heard Bilder aus Osten for piano duet, in which she was joined by Orion Weiss. They played well, as my previous encounters with their work had led me to expect, though the admirable Ms. Polonsky (for whom I had the pleasure of turning pages at a house concert in Philadelphia a few years ago) needs to beware of a tendency to give long chords less than their full time-value.

In the generously programmed full concert that followed, by far the greatest pleasure came after intermission, with the astonishingly precocious Piano Quartet that Richard Strauss wrote soon after his 20th birthday. The first half had consisted of music by Mozart, Schubert, and Debussy; and though their three works were performed with a good deal of instrumental aplomb, some problems of balance stood in the way of complete success.

Stefan Jackiw is a phenomenally gifted young violinist, but in Mozart’s G-major Trio, K. 564, he showed himself so unwilling to play at less than a healthy forte dynamic that the evidently fine contributions of Polonsky’s piano and Bion Tsang’s cello were seriously overshadowed. (Perhaps he was trying to justify the very common, but still erroneous, listing of the piece in the program as a trio for violin, cello, and piano, whereas what Mozart, in common with the practice of his contemporaries and even as late a successor as Brahms, thought of it as was a trio for piano, violin, and cello.)

In Schubert’s pleasant little one-movement String Trio, D. 471, and the Debussy String Quartet. the problem stemmed from a different cause. Violinist Augustin Hadelich and violist Richard O’Neill in the Schubert, and these two with Joseph Lin on first violin in the Debussy, all played beautifully, O’Neill in particular crafting some darkly seductive phrases. Now, it may be that Godfried Hoogeveen’s cello sounded excellent to a few dozen listeners in the first few rows on house left – but in my assigned central seat near the back of the hall I found his tone, emerging from his sideways-on position, too puny to provide a firm foundation for the harmony.

That seating arrangement is normal enough in string-quartet performance. But then, with the cello facing straight out to the audience in the piano quartet, difficulties of balance seemed to have magically melted away. Orion Weiss returned to throw off a dazzling account of Strauss’ surprisingly effective piano part, Nurit Bar-Josef and Cynthia Phelps were eloquent and sensitive on violin and viola, and Edward Arron projected the cello line with all the power and tonal allure that the music’s fully saturated yet clear textures demand.

That clarity, by the way, is what-in addition to sheer musical inventiveness-distinguishes Strauss even in his youth from many a lesser composer. There are, for example, works by such romantics as Scriabin in which themes are so vaguely delineated that thematic cross-references are virtually impossible to perceive through the prevailing textural fog. With Strauss, every theme is so firmly profiled that its return makes an immediate and satisfying effect. And all such effects were masterfully realized in this splendid performance.

Bernard Jacobson