Seriousness and Fun from Seattle Chamber Music Society

United StatesUnited States Brahms, Mozart, Dvořák, Bartók, Milhaud, Mendelssohn: Seattle Chamber Music Society, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 11.7.2012 (BJ)

This was one of those evenings that ingeniously combine serious illumination with amusing entertainment. The serious bits came at the beginning and end, while the middle of the main program provided the amusement.

For the pre-concert recital, Jeremy Denk offered two pieces from Brahms’s Opus 118 and then Book 1 of the composer’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini. The two Intermezzos were warmly and imaginatively played, and the Variations cast a revealing light on the variations by Marc-André Hamelin based on the same theme that we heard a week or so earlier. The effect of Hamelin’s set did not go much beyond astonishment at the sheer speed and power with which he played it: the Brahms work is a very different matter, and along with a no less impressive vein of virtuosity, Denk mined it for every ounce of its considerable expressive richness.

The concert proper began with Mozart’s Divertimento for piano trio, K. 254, and ended with Mendelssohn’s Piano Quartet in C minor. The former, an agreeable piece in relatively undemanding style, featured strong playing by pianist Orion Weiss and an authoritative if not especially beguiling account of the violin part by Ida Levin. Cellist Bion Tsang’s contribution was shown up somewhat in the Mendelssohn by Edward Arron’s more resonant tone; and aided by equally fine playing by pianist Anna Polonsky, violinist Benjamin Beilman, and violist David Harding, the piece made the immensely powerful effect that this quite extraordinary Opus 1—written at the age of 13!—can scarcely fail to make. Only the slightly-too-similar character of the piano part in the last two movements betrays any sign of immature judgement in the composer’s budding mastery.

Highly effective also was the performance of Dvořák’s rarely heard Miniatures for two violins and viola. By turns ruminative and exhilarating, these four pieces brought some graceful violin-playing by Stephen Rose and Augustin Hadelich, partnered by violist Richard O’Neill with his customary skill.

Denk returned for the two diverting works that straddled intermission—Bartók’s two-piano version of Seven Pieces from Mikrokosmos, and Milhaud’s Scaramouche Suite for the same forces. This was where sheer fun largely took over. Denk was joined for these works by Inon Barnatan. I had not encountered this pianist before, but any suspicion that he might find it hard to match Denk’s well-established artistry was quickly banished: Barnatan is a musician of already remarkable artistry. He matched Denk’s every shaft of wit and eloquence with winning spontaneity, and with a technical and musical command that surely prefigure a major career for this young Israeli.

Bernard Jacobson