Borodin and Ravel start week two of the SCMS summer festival; Armstrong returns to the piano

Andrew Armstrong

The second week of the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s summer festival began with Andrew Armstrong’s return to the piano. An infection caused by a bug bite or some other intruder sidelined the pianist, putting him in the hospital even. Although Armstrong was missed by the loyal festival attendees, other pianists, including the incomparable Craig Sheppard, filled in for their ailing colleague.

Armstrong made his return playing the piano at the pre-concert recital tackling Bela Bartok’s demanding Second Sonata for Violin and Piano with James Ehnes.  Armstrong followed this performance by playing the piano part for another violin sonata — Beethoven’s Violin Sonata Op. 30, No. 1. Violinist Andrew Wan, a festival newcomer, joined him in the performance.

Beethoven conceived and wrote the sonata during one of the darkest periods in his life. Deafness was obliterating his hearing. Thoughts of suicide urged his psyche. The resulting sonata is profoundly personal. Wan and Armstrong gave the work a spellbinding performance. Through three movements, the duo seemed to stop time, allowing the audience to appreciate the full measure of Beethoven’s genius. Wan approached Beethoven’s liquid phrases with focused intensity, gulping air after each breathlessly shaped passages while Armstrong’s own playing matched the elegance of the piano part.

Toby Saks, the society’s artistic director, has been a champion of chamber music outside of the mainstream repertory. Alexander Borodin’s String Quintet is one of these pieces. Borodin clearly knew his way around a melody. The quintet’s four movements are bursting with them. If Borodin knew his way around a melody, Augustin Hadelich and James Ehnes (violins); Bion Tsang and Edward Arron (cello); and Richard O’Neill (viola) knew their way around Borodin’s music. Borodin’s quintet treated melodies predictably and utilized straightforward instrumental writing.  Borodin would perfect his chamber style later in life with his two beloved string quartets.  The quintet’s weaknesses as a piece never inhibited the musicians’ enthusiastic reading.

An equally enthusiastic performance, this time of a Ravel’s Piano Trio, concluded the night’s program. Ravel composed the piece fitfully between 1913 and 1914. By the time Ravel set out to write a trio he had mastered the bustling rhythms, vivid instrumental colors, and complementary textures that have made him famous.

The soul of the piece can be found in the first and third movements. Ravel’s colors, which are drenched in the Iberian sun for the second movement especially, are subdued by faded luminosity. In the first movement, Ravel’s rhythms sounded worried. In the third movement, the cello and violin hinted at downhearted, internal torment. Robert DeMaine and Nurit Bar-Josef rendered the movement beautifully. Adam Neiman distinguished himself in the trio’s finale by easily tackling Ravel’s volcanic piano part – which is doused with uneasy rhythms and abundant triplets.

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