James Ehnes—Not Just a Pretty Bow Arm

United StatesUnited States Winter Festival: various artists, in Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle (BJ)

Shostakovich: Viola Sonata
Bartók: Suite, Op. 14
Bartók: Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion
Brahms: Variations from String Sextet No. 1 (arr. solo piano); String Sextet No. 1

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-6

Britten: Suite for Solo Cello No. 1
Beethoven: Serenade for String Trio, Op. 84
Debussy (arr. Cooper): Sonata No. 4
Wolf:  Italian Serenade
Mendelssohn: String Quintet in B-Flat major, Op. 87

Making musical programs and performing them are two very different arts. But in the person of James Ehnes, now in his second season at is head, the Seattle Chamber Music Society has clearly found an artistic director equally gifted at both. The Canadian violinist is already well established as one of his instrument’s finest living exponents. And the programs he had put together for the society’s Winter Festival served to confirm that he is not just a pretty bow arm, but a musical thinker of substance.

This was demonstrated at once in the first concert I was able to attend this year. Whether by conscious intent or through instinctive insight on Ehnes’s part, the Brahms First Sextet, with its scherzo’s cheerfully respectful echoes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, seemed just made to end an afternoon that had begun, in the customary pre-concert recital, with the Shostakovich Viola Sonata. For that work too is full of such allusions to earlier music, from Beethoven’s to some of Shostakovich’s own works.

Violist Toby Appel noted these in his illuminating (and at times hilarious) introductory remarks. He then proceeded to play this warmly expressive piece superbly, with tone that ranged from a meaningful whisper to a positively overwhelming grandeur, and with a considerable variety of timbre in the music’s frequent pizzicatos.

Having partnered Appel with impressive address in the Shostakovich, pianist Jeewon Park returned to begin the concert proper with Bartók’s already somewhat percussive Suite, Op. 14, which was followed by the same composer’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Strongly supported by Michael Werner and Michael Crusoe (principal percussionist and timpanist respectively of the Seattle Symphony), Max Levinson and Ms. Park skillfully encompassed the music’s wide variety of moods, from the thoughtfully mysterious to the robustly eupeptic.

Regarding the pairing that followed intermission, the artistic director’s intent was clearly evident. Brahms’s sumptuous First Sextet, a work that reveals remarkable maturity on the part of its youthful composer, was preceded by the composer’s solo piano arrangement of its wonderful slow-movement variations in D minor. The juxtaposition threw intriguing light on the feeling for tone-color possessed by a composer too often accused of lacking it.

The piano version of the variations emerged with powerful intensity under Levinson’s hands. The sextet, in its full version for strings, was then accorded an interpretation that–with the first movement’s exposition repeat properly observed–fully realized its breadth of design and warmth of expression. In the slow movement, Appel again shone with his gleaming delivery of the theme’s opening phrase. Violinist Emily Daggett Smith (with Ehnes taking the second chair) took up the melody with comparable ardor.

Once or twice in the rest of the piece, as at the little cadence figure in the finale’s main theme, I could have welcomed a more playful turn of phrase à la Casals. But for the rest, in these three contrived, along with second violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt and cellists Julie Albers and Jeremy Turner, to fashion a performance of irrepressible elan.

Four days later, the society abandoned its usual format with pre-concert recital. Instead, the whole evening was devoted to a rare—and mostly delightful—performance of all six of Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concertos.

It took a little time for the pulse of the evening’s music to get off the ground. I found it hard not to hear the first movements of the first three concertos as if there were four beats in each measure, instead of the two larger beats of Bach’s alla breve time-signature. This detail of phrasing aside, however, there was plenty of fine playing to be enjoyed in all of these works. Demarre McGill contributed wonderfully pure flute tone, with no extraneous breath spilling out of it, in No. 2, where, as throughout the evening, Luc Beauséjour supplied expert support as the continuo harpsichordist.

Concerto No. 4—which in any case begins in a different meter—showcased Ehnes’s own brilliance in the solo violin part, and from that point on there was nothing to complain about, unless you were a sufficiently dedicated adherent of the so-called “authentic” school to object to the degree of vibrato that adorned the strings’ playing all evening. And in No. 5, in which violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti, McGill again, and Beauséjour were the expert soloists, the rhythm of the first movement came across as a beautifully supple two-in-a-bar. Beauséjour’s delivery of the huge cadenza near the end of the movement was magnificently solid and stable in rhythm, eschewing the high drama that some harpsichordists draw from it, and the second and third movements kept up a comparable standard of musical conviction.

The Concerto No. 6, in any case my favorite of the set, brought what also seemed to be the evening’s most completely satisfying performance. (The viola da gamba parts were, as often these days, played on cellos.) Rhythm, again, was impeccable in the two fast movements, and the central Adagio was phrased with compelling eloquence. The finale, in particular, featured some delightful thrust and parry from Richard O’Neill and Toby Appel in the two solo viola parts; and it was touching to observe, when they took their bows, that O’Neill was clearly fighting back tears at the intensity of what he had just experienced and communicated.

The last of my three concerts in this winter’s festival paid centennial tribute to Benjamin Britten: the pre-concert recital was devoted to his Suite No. 1 for Solo Cello. The performance, by Robert deMaine, was quite marvelous, and his introductory remarks were characteristic of this fine cellist’s charm and wit.

The concert proper began with Beethoven’s Serenade for String Trio, Op. 8, fluently played by Amy Schwartz Moretti, Richard O’Neill, and Edward Arron. The last-named in particular revealed his dedication as a chamber-music player not only with characterful playing but also by dint of constant eye-contact with his partners.

Nathan Hughes on oboe, William VerMeulen on horn (why do American programs insist on calling the instrument “French horn”?), and Luc Beauséjour on harpsichord then offered what was billed as Sonata No. 4 by Claude Debussy/Kenneth Cooper. The latter, a well-known American harpsichordist, had taken three Debussy movements and refashioned them as a group, to compensate a little for the fact that the composer’s death cut his proposed series of chamber sonatas short at three. The result, in an excellent performance, sounded not at all like Debussy, but it was great fun.

Ehnes, who is meticulous in sharing first-violin glory with his colleagues, did take the first chair after intermission for a pleasantly easy-going performance of Wolf’s Italian Serenade, with Moretti, O’Neill, and deMaine on the other three parts. It was followed by Mendelssohn’s B-flat-major String Quintet, Op. 87—yet another example of the greatness of a composer too often underrated in the past. Violinists Scott Yoo and Ehnes, violists Michael Klotz and Toby Appel, and cellist deMaine responded with thrilling fervor to the almost uninterrupted rhythmic elan of the opening movement. The scherzando second movement, the soulful Adagio, and the dashing finale were equally strongly characterized, bringing the festival to a highly impressive close.

Bernard Jacobson