SCMS Winter Festival Showcases Brahms Quartets

United StatesUnited States Brahms, Mozart, Shostakovich, Schubert, Dvořák, Prokofiev: Seattle Chamber Music Society artists, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle. 2 & 5.2.2012 (BJ)

For the first festival he has programmed, the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s new artistic director, James Ehnes, had the excellent idea of offering Brahms’s three string quartets in the pre-concert recitals that customarily preface the concerts proper. I attended the first and last of the three regular concerts (there was also a special event featuring Ehnes in a violin-and-piano recital), and enjoyed them enormously.

While the rest of the programs followed SCMS’s usual practice of varying performers from one work to the next, the Brahms quartets were entrusted to a single team of players, all Society stalwarts: violinists Ehnes and Amy Schwartz Moretti, violist Richard O’Neill, and cellist Robert deMaine. The C-minor Quartet, Op. 51 No. 1, demonstrated from the very first measure that this was to be powerfully romantic performance with no expressive holds barred. Tempos were convincingly set, and tone, phrasing, and articulation were all exemplary. It could be said that, in the slow movement, the group’s dynamic level was inflated somewhat beyond Brahms’s predominant piano and pianissimo markings, but this was forgivable in the context of such a high-octane, impassioned reading. The B-flat-major Quartet, Op. 67, is a work of cooler emotional temperature, and the performers responded appropriately to its wonderfully genial atmosphere, crafting a reading that brought the music’s rhythmic ingenuity and the brilliance of its thematic cross-references into the clearest possible focus.

In Thursday’s main concert, quality of music and quality of performance were not quite consistently related. The program began with Mozart’s G-minor Piano Quartet, K. 478. Here violinist Moretti, violist O’Neill, and pianist William Wolfram were consistently excellent, whereas Edward Arron – a cellist I have admired greatly in the past (and see below!), while often warmly eloquent and solid in tone, tended to accent occasional notes and phrases a shade aggressively. The balance of the first movement, moreover, was impaired by the omission of the second repeat, which materially altered the impact of a coda unusually spacious in proportions for Mozart; and I felt that the principal theme of the gracious finale would have benefitted from a freer handling of its important quarter-note rest.

Having started with a good performance of a great work, the evening continued with a great performance of a good one. Among Shostakovich’s fifteen string quartets – who would have guessed, when the composer made his first approach to the genre with five symphonies already to his credit, that his contribution to the string-quartet medium was to play so important a part in his total oeuvre? – No. 1 is perhaps the least impressive: in some ways, it comes closer to blandness than any of its successors. But violinists Erin Keefe and Scott Yoo, violist Roberto Díaz, and cellist deMaine made the most of all the musical sustenance the work does offer.

After intermission, great music and great playing came rewardingly together, with a performance of Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat major by Ehnes, cellist Bion Tsang, and pianist Adam Neiman that was deservedly greeted by a vociferous standing ovation from the sold-out house.

The Sunday afternoon concert offered some charming Dvořák that had never appeared on the Society’s programs before. First came the set of Bagatelles, Op. 47, for two violins, cello, and harmonium, succulently played by violinists Yoo and Ehnes and cellist Tsang, with Andrew Armstrong on an uncommonly warm-toned harmonium. Armstrong then returned to partner with William Wolfram in the piano-duet version of Klid, or Silent Woods, which the pair prefaced with some diverting by-play with seat adjustments, dropped sheet music, and a make-believe stern glance at the audience when it laughed too much.

The program had opened with Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata, Op. 119. It was here that, with Wolfram at the piano, Edward Arron re-established his true quality as a cellist endowed with the richest of tone and with a formidable command of intonation and articulation. Indeed, I thought the two performers played the piece for considerably more than it’s worth. This, if you (and Prokofiev’s ghost) will forgive me for saying so, is essentially a silly piece, stitching ideas for about twenty possible works together with scant regard for logic or expressive coherence, and its jerry-built construction was at once thrown into unflattering light by the infinitely more skillful handling of some not dissimilar rhythmic patterns in the Dvořák Bagatelles that followed.

The end of the afternoon, and of the four-day festival as a whole, appropriately took us back to Brahms, and to a work of major-masterpiece status: the String Quintet No. 2 in G major, Op. 111. It received a performance fully worthy of the music and the occasion. The violinists were Amy Schwartz Moretti and Erin Keefe, the violists Roberto Díaz and Richard O’Neill, all of them musicians of the highest caliber (even if Díaz’s responsibilities as president and CEO of the celebrated Curtis Institute in Philadelphia must leave him a bit short of practice time). And the first movement’s volcanic principal theme – which the Rosé Quartet’s cellist Reinhold Hummer, though noted for the power of his tone, despaired of making audible at the work’s premiere – was projected by deMaine with commanding clarity and eloquence, even though his four colleagues seemed to be making no special attempt to defer to him by moderating their own forte figurations. “Absolutely not,” he remarked afterwards – “I like to fight!” Clearly, quite apart from the gifts as a sit-down comic that he revealed in the short post-concert discussion session, deMaine is a musician of exceptional talent. He wielded it masterfully in this positively thrilling performance, which left the audience eagerly awaiting the first full month’s festival to be programmed by James Ehnes for this coming summer.

Bernard Jacobson