Three fine works and one forgettable one at Lakeside

The evening weather was glorious—again—and the lawn and auditorium at Lakeside School were packed—again—as the ninth recital and concert of Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival got under way. It’s getting almost old hat to say that performance and ambiance shone, but they did.

Only one work on Friday’s program was quite familiar and that mostly from recordings: Brahms’ Trio for horn, violin and piano in E-Flat major. The Seattle Symphony’s Jeffrey Fair took the hornist’s part, with Stefan Jackiw playing violin and Jeremy Denk, piano, and it was fascinating to hear the juxtaposition of those very different instrumental timbres. Violin and horn can both create a rich smoothness and depth, but where Fair’s horn is velvet, Jackiw’s violin is silk and he can, and did, achieve an extraordinary range of nuance not as available to the horn.

Brahms composed this specifically for the natural horn, but by the time this was written it was mostly obsolete as a concert instrument, and the modern horn is usually heard in the trio today. I wondered what the balance would have been like with the older horn. It seemed as though Fair often had to hold back on volume and at times when Jackiw played at his softest he didn’t always come through, particularly in the sections where Brahms has the violin playing lower than the horn.

Nevertheless, the three players, with Denk as a sensitive partner to the other two, gave the trio all its vitality and charm in a very satisfactory performance.

The evening had begun with a recital in which pianist William Wolfram played one of Liszt’s opera transcriptions, of Bellini’s “I Puritani”—Introduction and Polonaise.

He prefaced the performance by putting the work into context, commenting that opera transcriptions had been highly popular and that composers had taken the original work and run wherever they liked with them.

Bellini might have barely recognized his melodies as Liszt transformed them with quantities of notes in chords and runs, and by loading each simple tune with coruscating musical embroidery. As such, this work was great fun to hear, and as Wolfram said, to play. Having recently recorded this, he played its myriad notes with relaxed ease, making sense of Liszt’s imaginative flights of fancy. It’s a pleasure to watch Wolfram’s hands. He never bangs on the piano, but the power or delicacy of the instrument and the shape and intent of the composer’s wishes come through.

A bright and cheerful little piece by Milhaud, his Suite for violin, clarinet and piano from “Le Voyageur sans bagages,” opened the concert itself. Jazzy, jaunty, syncopated, bubbly, it received a performance which brought out all those facets and more from violinist Erin Keefe, clarinetist Frank Kowalsky and pianist Adam Neiman.

Last came Sergei Taneyev’s Quartet in E major for piano and strings. This is the second concert I’ve come to at Lakeside this year where the final, big work was not on the same level as the rest of the program. Taneyev, and last week, Arensky, are not inspired composers, and their works show it.

Apart from the last movement which has some clearer more inventive harmony, this quartet is unremitting romantic schmaltz, including every musical cliché in the book. It was well played, of course, but it seems such a waste for these gifted musicians to spend time rehearsing such a forgettable work. Violinist Nurit Bar-Josef, violist Richard O-Neill, cellist Ronald Thomas and pianist Wolfram gave it their best. Moments of listening pleasure came with O-Neill’s and Bar-Josef’s perfect synchrony in sections of the last movement, in the matched tone quality of the three string players, and in the last movement’s rippling piano with light strings above.

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