United Kingdom Haydn, Beethoven, Vaughan Williams: Nicholas Phan (tenor), Michelle Ross & Carmit Zori (violins), Rebecca Albers (viola), Alice Yoo (cello), Lydia Brown (piano), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 26.1.2017. (BJ)
Haydn – String Quartet in D major, Op.76 No.5, Hob.III:79
Beethoven (arr.) – “Once more I hail thee,” The Morning Air Plays on My Face,” “The Soldier’s Dream,” “The Deserter,” & “Dermot and Shelah,” from Irische Lieder, WoO.152; String Quartet in C major, Op.59 No.3, “Razumovsky”
Vaughan Williams – On Wenlock Edge
The instrumental playing in this second of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s “Musicians from Marlboro” concerts maintained the sumptuous level of artistry we associate with that celebrated training-ground of musical talent.
Haydn’s Op.76 No.5 is unusual among his string quartets in beginning, not with a sonata-form movement, but with a spacious set of variations. The four players realized its grace impeccably, meshing with each other so well that it would seem irrelevant to single out one or other member of the group for individual comment. Suffice it to say that the ensemble tone was warm and well balanced, the style sufficiently appropriate, and the wit of the later movements neatly pointed.
Beethoven’s much more familiar third “Razumovsky” Quartet naturally had to stand comparison with all the many previous accounts we may have heard, but the Marlborovians stood up to the test with a performance of the highest merit. The first three movements again demonstrated a welcome unanimity of approach, enhanced by more than a little virtuosity. The slow movement was especially compelling in its searching mystery of atmosphere. But to my mind it was the finale that succeeded most strikingly: it was taken at a tempo that was fast enough in all conscience, but faithfully obeyed the composer’s marking – “Allegro molto,” not the vertiginous Presto we too often hear – and thus allowed all the music’s fascinating textural detail to emerge with unusual clarity. (I was reminded of the conductor René Jacobs, who, in his Harmonia Mundi recording of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, sets a tempo for “Fin ch’han dal vino” that for once allows Giovanni to sing instead of breathlessly gabbling.)
It would be pleasant to report that the vocal works on the program were equally well served. Certainly Nicholas Phan is a conscientious and sensitive singer, with a good feeling for language, and a welcome determination to make final consonants tell, even if a trifle too explosively at times. But in a fairly nondescript selection of Beethoven’s Irish folk-song arrangements with piano trio, and in Vaughan Williams’s by turns impassioned and ironic On Wenlock Edge, his tone was forced at forte dynamic levels, and sounded sadly strangled in lower dynamics. His musical and poetic gifts could easily turn him into an outstanding performer if he can only find a solution to his technical problems.