Urban and Bucolic: Pacific Northwest Chamber Music

United StatesUnited States Brahms, Beethoven, Honegger, and Enescu: Seattle Chamber Music Society, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 29.6.2013

Liszt, Hahn, and Schumann: Paul Hersh (piano), Zachary Gordin (baritone), Olympic Music Festival, Quilcene, WA, 30.6.2013 (BJ)

Seattle Chamber Music Society
Brahms: Clarinet Sonata in F minor, Op. 120 No. 1
Beethoven: Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 1 No. 3
Honegger: Intrada for trumpet and piano
Enescu: Légende for trumpet and piano
Brahms:Clarinet Quintet

Olympic Music Festival
Liszt: Liebesträume
Hahn: Chansons grises
Schumann: Dichterliebe

The summer’s chamber music in the Seattle area got off to a flying start on the last weekend in June. It would be hard to imagine two more disparate settings than the Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall in Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, where the Seattle Chamber Music Society opened this year’s summer festival on Saturday evening, and the barn in rural Quilcene, where the Olympic Music Festival opened its 30th season with the customary repeat performances on Saturday and Sunday afternoon (thus enabling me to hear both programs).

The two crucial elements that both festivals have in common are consistently high artistic standards and passionately dedicated audiences. Founded and directed for years by cellist Toby Saks, the Seattle organization is now headed by James Ehnes, while Saks has taken a back—or perhaps a side—seat as associate artistic director.

Saturday’s opening program luxuriated in the presence of the gifted Ricardo Morales, principal clarinet of the Philadelphia Orchestra since 2003, and before that of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. He was featured in both the customary pre-concert recital, playing the first of Brahms’s two clarinet sonatas, and in the concert proper, which concluded with a radiant account of the composer’s Clarinet Quintet.

One of the most impressive of Morales’s qualities is the ability to play with the utmost delicacy, while his louder tones are blessedly free from the piercing sound that lesser clarinetists sometimes perpetrate. I have had occasion in the past, reviewing chamber concerts in Nordstrom Hall, to complain of excessive loudness, but Morales, violinists Ehnes and Stephen Rose, violist Rebecca Albers, and cellist Brinton Smith showed that any such problem is not the fault of the hall itself: this was a wonderfully subtle performance of the great Quintet, with the tone of the clarinet beautifully integrated into the ensemble. And though Brahms is sometimes accused of writing lack-luster textures, the two violinists on this occasion demonstrated that that too is a misdirected complaint, for their contribution to the total effect was full of light and brilliance.

(The only sour note was played, I’m afraid, by a tiny handful of audience members. Dedicated this public certainly is, but just a couple of—I must not say “idiots,” but inconsiderate persons—spoiled some of the most poetic moments with their raucous coughing, and there was also one—all right, I will say “idiot”—who strolled insouciantly down to his seat in the middle of one of the first rows during the bewitching opening phrases of the Quintet.)

The other Brahms piece had been equally well played in the preliminary recital, when Morales was partnered by Andrew Armstrong, and the pianist also joined Jens Lindemann for two trumpet-and-piano pieces. Lindemann is a German trumpet virtuoso, who disarmed the audience with a hilarious stand-up-comic introduction to Honegger’s modest Intrada and Enescu’s more ambitious and rather impressive Légende. He played both with sumptuous tone and exciting flair. It would be interesting to find out, in different repertoire, whether he also commands the superfine purity of expression and delicacy of sound of the great Håkan Hardenberger—but for the purposes of this program, his talent was entirely appropriate.

With three different players, Beethoven’s C-minor Piano Trio, Op. 1 No. 3, opened the concert in a fluent and stylish reading. Violinist Ida Levin, a perennial favorite at the festival, played with customary verve, which was fully matched by cellist David Requiro and pianist Inon Barnatan.

Next day, it was off to the country for me. Among the varied treats on offer in the 30th season of Alan Iglitzin’s Olympic Music Festival, the program that opened this year’s ten-week chamber-music feast seemed in prospect one of the most enticing.

Nor did the reality, when I heard Sunday’s second performance, disappoint. Pianist Paul Hersh with composer Robert Schumann surely constitutes a pairing of predestined aptness. Why, you may wonder? Well, quite aside from being one of the world’s great pianists, Hersh possesses exactly the qualities requisite for playing this most teasingly indirect and allusive of composers: a light and subtle touch, together with an equally subtle poetic imagination. Put those attributes at the service of Schumann’s Dichterliebe, one of the half-dozen greatest song-cycles ever written, and add, in 32-year-old American baritone Zachary Gordin, a singer already capable of arresting musical insights, and you have the materials for the superb performance a fortunate audience enjoyed on this gorgeous summer day.

Gordin has been busier on the operatic than on the recital stage, so his skill in scaling his voice appropriately to the intimate environment of Quilcene’s rustic barn was all the more praiseworthy. The occasional big effects were commanding and intense without ever descending into coarseness, and the delicacy and tonal allure he brought to the cycle’s preponderance of quiet songs were deeply impressive.

My only small suggestion might be that feminine endings could benefit from a slightly more graceful fining-down of their second syllables. But in every other respect Gordin’s German diction was exemplary—just as, before intermission, his performance of a attractive set of songs by the Venezuelan-born and French-naturalized Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947) had shown that the French language too sits convincingly in his voice. It was a pleasure to make the acquaintance of these seven Chansons grises (“Gray Songs”). They were apparently composed when Hahn was in his early teens, and their perceptive treatment of complex and emotionally searching Verlaine texts would have been impressive coming from a composer of twice that age.

In addition to providing a wonderfully insightful introduction to the Schumann cycle—about which, well as I know this music, he told me things I had never previously thought of—Hersh supported his singer with unfailingly vivid expression, punctual timing, and a fine sense of balance. His playing is especially notable for its pearly limpidity of tone, and for his ability to project independent lines with total clarity and with a sense of compelling forward motion. These virtues also informed the performance of three “Liebesträume” for solo piano by Liszt that opened the program.

Hersh will be back on July 20 and 21 for a program of romantic works by Rozsa, Mendelssohn, and—again—Schumann, and for the following weekend’s Beethoven festival (the “Spring” Sonata, the “Ghost” Trio, and the third “Rasumovsky” String Quartet). At the keyboard on the other weeks will be Julio Elizalde, the gifted young Hersh pupil who has played at several previous Olympic festivals. He has now stepped into the role of Co-Artistic Director alongside the redoubtable Iglitzin, who could hardly have guessed, when he started this remarkable artistic endeavor in 1984, that it would still be going strong thirty years later.

Bernard Jacobson