Extremes in Varying Proportion Open Seattle Festival

United StatesUnited States Hamelin, Beethoven, Bartók, and Brahms: Various Artists, Seattle Chamber Music Society, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 2.7.2012 (BJ)

The opening of any festival worthy of the name is sure to evoke a sense of occasion. That sense was particularly strong on the first evening of the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s summer season, for the organization could well claim something of a coup in presenting, as both pianist and composer, the Canadian virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin, a cult figure ardently admired by all who enjoy what might be called extreme pianism.

Extremes were indeed the order of the evening. In the Society’s customary pre-concert recital, the 50-year-old Hamelin offered two of his own works, and they could hardly have differed more in tone and manner. Expectedly enough, his Variations on a Theme of Paganini pushed the boundaries of vertiginous brilliance and forceful dynamics, and he played them with what seemed like near-immaculate execution.

Impressively, the work’s brief moments of contrasting quiet lyricism managed to avoid any recollection of the celebrated 18th variation in Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody—and it was amusing to notice that a phrase in the other set of variations Hamelin played fleetingly echoed Rachmaninoff’s ingenious and caressing inversion of Paganini’s opening phrase. I have to say that this work, written in 2007, dedicated to Hamelin’s fiancée, and redolent of crystalline lyrical inspiration, gave me much more pleasure than his Paganini set, in which the factor of excitement—of sheer incredulity that anyone could play the music so fast or so loudly—considerably exceeded any element of purely musical pleasure.

At the other end of the evening, the concert proper concluded with what I am tempted to call another stab at Brahms’s F-minor Piano Quintet. The Society last presented the work almost exactly three years ago, with results that I found unsatisfying, and this year’s effort sadly followed the same pattern. Here again extremes dominated the performance, to a degree that seemed quite out of proportion to any truly Brahmsian concept of form and style. I am all for players who take risks in the interest of intensity of expression—but the brashness and superficiality of this reading’s fortissimos lacked the grandeur that this masterpiece must surely achieve.

There was some beautifully turned phrases, especially from second violinist Augustin Hadelich (the only holdover from 2009) and from violist David Harding, but first violinist Andrew Wan tore too violently into his part, cellist Bion Tsang was competent but not especially illuminating, and I felt a curious disconnect between what the string players were doing and Hamelin’s expert playing of the piano part, which seemed to be taking place in a Ray Bradbury-ish alternative musical universe.

The best part of the performance came in the slow movement, where there is little temptation to flashy grandiosity. But once again, as three years ago, the coda of the finale was ruined by phrasing insensitive to its rhythmic structure. I doubt whether any listener, even among those intimately familiar with the work, could have actually heard Brahms’s breathless five-note figures on this occasion in their proper 6/8 rhythm. Not being a string player myself, I will not venture a judgement as to whether the way the players bowed the passage, with down-bows each time on the first, third, and fifth of the notes, is the only way it can be played. But what I do know is that, if you are going to bow it that way, then you surely must take care to lighten the emphasis on the first and fifth notes in order to get the rhythm right. It’s a matter, by the way, of timing as much as of dynamic stress, for the empty fourth 8th note in each measure needs to be expanded—not by much, perhaps only by a millisecond or two—in order to avoid making the music degenerate into an apparent and prosaic 3/4 meter.

Altogether, therefore, despite Hamelin’s starry presence, the strongest effect made by the concert program came, after a fluent reading of Beethoven’s rather forgettable E-flat-major Variations, Op. 44, for piano trio, with a thoroughly musicianly and deftly phrased performance of Bartók’s passionate First Violin Sonata. Expertly supported by pianist Jon Kimura Parker, the Society’s new artistic director, James Ehnes, again demonstrated his ability to play music of many different styles with beautiful tone, incisive articulation, and keen emotional insight. The extremes, in this performance, were telling enough, but they never transgressed against fundamental principles of measure and proportion.

Bernard Jacobson