Reviewing the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s summer festival is a difficult task. It is, I would say, the most reliable series of classical music performances in Seattle. The performers are top-notch, drawn from orchestras, universities, and solo rosters. They have to be this good, of course, because they are playing something different with a new, ad hoc ensemble each night. Usually, musicians have only a few days to prepare. Along with the excellent performers, the thrice weekly programs are as dependable as sighting Mount Rainier on a summer day. There are heavy doses of Schubert, Brahms, Mozart, Shostakovich, and others. The interesting stuff is usually reserved for the free recitals that happen an hour before.
Friday’s performance ended the first week of the festival. The first two nights sold out easily and the third night was a near sell out. Thirty minutes before the free recital began there were only seven seats left. Including the recital, the concert was a three and a half hour odyssey through the music of Faure, Mozart, Schubert, and Ernest Bloch.
After 28 years are there any superlatives left to describe the performances in this festival?
The evening opened with a seductive performance of Gabriel Faure’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major, Op. 13. Andrew Armstrong, piano, and Amy Schwartz Moretti, violin, were impressive not just in how they captured the spirit of the piece but how well they seemed to work together. There is so much melodic interchange the piece practically requires a symbiotic relationship between the violinist and pianist.
The concert proper opened with Mozart’s Piano Quartet Nr. 1 in G Minor K. 478. Mozart only wrote two piano quartets. Two too few, frankly. With his two quartets Mozart was breaking new ground by treating each of the four instruments as equals, especially the piano, which up to that point had been deployed to primarily play continuo. In the first quartet Mozart changes these rules by giving the piano a concerto-like part which ultimately drives the entire piece. Andrew Armstrong, Soovin Kim, Scott St. John, and Toby Saks easily mixed bravura with elegance through out the quartet. Armstrong’s piano performance was the strongest element of the performance while Toby Saks had trouble keeping an even tone and projecting her cello as an equal to the violin, viola, and piano.
The second half closed with Franz Schubert’s Piano Trio Nr. 1 in B-flat Major. This forty minute, symphony sized trio was written near the end of Schubert’s life. Nevertheless, the piece shines rather than haunts. Schubert is the master of beautiful melodies. Robert Schumann reportedly said of the trio “a glance at Schubert’s trio and all miserable human commotion vanishes, and the world shines in new splendor.”
Anna Polonsky filled in for Jeremy Denk on piano who was in California for another commitment, and along with Robert DdeMaine on cello, they matched the music and each other perfectly. deMaine’s cello sounded princely in the first and second movement when he introduces the first movement’s second theme and the melody of the second movement. Augustin Hadelich was dependable on violin but without the personification of DeMaine or Polonsky. Countermelodies rolled off of his bow effortlessly and accurately, but seemed too rigid for the music or Polonsky and deMaine.
The concert ended with a rousing performance of Ernest Bloch’s Piano Quintet Nr. 1. I was a little surprised to see so many empty seats after the interval. Most chamber concerts probably would have ended with the Schubert, and by the time the second half started it was almost 10 pm, and Ernest Bloch is far from a household name, but couldn’t the dissenters have toughed it out for thirty more minutes? They would have loved every minute of it. There is an over-sized scope to the piece that would have appealed to people who love Brahms. On the other end, Bloch’s use of quarter steps, ferocious passages, spiky undulations, and colorful effects would have appealed to Shostakovich and Bartok fans. Moretti, James Ehnes, Richard O’Neill, Bion Tsang, and Adam Neiman gave a passionate and cohesive reading of the quintet.
Superlatives? I can think of one and I know it’s been used before – stunning.