United States Haydn, Saariaho, and Schumann: Musicians from Marlboro III: Joseph Lin  and Francisco Fullana  (violins), Pei-Ling Lin  (viola), Jay Campbell  and Ahrim Kim  (cellos), Zoltán Feyérvári  (piano), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 5.5.2016. (BJ)
Haydn: String Quartet in F major, Op. 77 No. 2, Hob.III:82 [1,2,3,4]
Saariaho: Terra Memoria [2,1,3,4]
Schumann: Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 63 [1,5,6]
These were reasonably enjoyable performances, but not on the stellar level we have come to expect when musicians from Marlboro’s fabled festival are on the platform. The finest playing came from Joseph Lin, recent inheritor of the Juilliard Quartet’s first-violin chair, who took that position in the Haydn and Schumann works and played second in the Saariaho, and his pianist colleague in Schumann’s D-minor Piano Trio, Zoltán Feyérvári, whom I had occasion to admire in a duo recital he gave with Kuok-Wai Lio earlier this season.
If the evening’s other violinist, Francisco Fullana, and the violist Pei-Ling Lin did not quite match Lin’s cultivated tone and subtle phrasing, they did competent work, but I felt that the cellos in both halves of the program provided a less than ideal foundation for the respective ensembles they were part of. Jay Campbell played accurately enough without making much of an artistic impression in either Haydn or Saariaho, but Ahrim Kim in the Schumann seemed to be inhabiting a different musical universe from that of her talented partners. Alongside Feyérvári’s sparkling lightness of touch on the piano and Lin’s impassioned violin-playing in Schumann’s rarely heard (and, truth to tell, rather diffuse) First Trio, she shone only in the slow movement, bringing to it a tonal bloom she lacked in the others, where her sound was strong enough in all conscience, but obtrusively boomy and not at all cleanly focused.
The evening’s novelty, a 20-minute tone poem for string quartet by the widely respected 63-year-old Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, left me in two minds. There were some compellingly delicate sonorities in the opening and closing sections of the work, and in its more vigorous central part the writing for strings was often eloquent and blessedly free from technical trickiness; much play is made with little phrases that repeatedly pull up short under the impact of sudden dynamic emphasis. But while the composer’s note told us that the work is dedicated “for those departed,” and seeks to evoke the way “we continue remembering the people who are no longer with us,” I was unable to relate what I was actually hearing to any such scenario: the music would have worked just as well if it had been billed as a picture of, say, white-water rafting in a remote area of Finland.
It may seem unfair to blame Saariaho for failing to emulate the kind of precise character evocation regularly achieved in music by such a master as Richard Strauss, but her program note aroused expectations that, in the event, were disappointed. I was reminded of the late David Drew’s wonderful description of a kind of verbal preluding that he ascribed to a fictive but verisimilitudinous “Society for the Promotion of Contemporary Program Notes.”