By R.M. Campbell
The inaugural season of the Seattle Chamber Music Festival in its new home — Nordstrom Recital Hall — has gotten off to a splendid beginning. The first concert Monday night was a major success, even with the absence of pianist Andrew Armstrong because of an infection in his leg. The second concert, on Wednesday, with Armstrong still out and in the hospital, was also a concert with considerable merit.
Arnold Schoenberg’s “Verklarte Nacht” (“Transfigured Night”) was the major piece on the program, and it was played as such by violinists James Ehnes and Augustin Hadelich; violists Cynthia Phelps and Richard O’Neill, and cellists Bion Tsang and Robert deMaine. The work, originally written for string sextet in 1899 and recast by the composer 18 years later for string orchestra is among the most admired pieces Schoenberg ever wrote. It is a coupling of late romanticism and early modernism. Schoenberg wrote some of the most challenging music of the 20th century: it is also some of the most despised. There is nothing to despise — or fear, to use Steven Lowe’s term in his excellent program notes — in “Verklarte Nacht.” This is real 19th-century program music, with a distinct narrative.
The mercurial tone of the piece was dramatically conveyed by the sextet, which included some of the best festival musicians led by Ehnes, the associate artistic director who will succeed founding artistic director Toby Saks next year. The fever-pitch emotions so vividly expressed by Schoenberg were given dramatic emphasis, but not to the detriment of the whole. Everything was keenly felt. The work is powerful, even without its narrative, inspired by a poem of Richard Dehmel in 1896, which the musicians illuminated without resorting to overstatement or a maudlin sensibility. All with big, warm tones, they were loving but not too loving. The development of the piece was organic, one phrase growing out of its predecessor. There was weight but not heaviness, muscle certainly but it not hard-hitting, textural clarity. Balance was superb.
Mendelssohn’s D Minor Piano Trio is a staple of chamber music. Seattle Chamber Music Festival is not an exception. In Wednesday’s performance were Andrew Win, violin; Edward Arron, cello, and Adam Neiman, piano. There were many virtues to the reading, particularly the Andante and Scherzo, but in the outer movements, the three concentrated on speed to the detriment of the whole. Phrases lacked shape and dynamics remained simply loud. This is Arron’s second appearance at the festival. He is a savvy musician with quick fingers, long phrases and a gorgeous, rich tone. He rarely looked at the score because he was always checking with his colleagues. The fast speed gave poor Neiman a huge assignment, which he succeeded in carrying out.
Armstrong was supposed to be Erin Keefe’s partner in Schumann’s A Minor Violin Sonata. Naturally Neiman stepped into the vacuum. It was a good partnership, each complimenting the other. The sonata is passionate Schumann to which the duo responded with warmth of tone, a seamless line and convincing manner.
With Armstrong in the hospital, the Bartok Second Violin Sonata, scheduled for Monday’s recital, was delayed again. This time Ehnes took up the slack with Bach’s Third Partita. I doubt if anyone complained. This is a monumental work and it was presented as such by Ehnes with a sublime, often moving, performance. He does not play in a period style precisely but he pays his respects, and the Bach sang with fervent appeal and intellectual depth. Ehnes, who came to the festival as a teenager — if my memory serves me correctly — already a supremely gifted musician. His performance of the Bach only proves how he has enriched his own deep musicality.