More superb chamber music: Bridge, Stravinsky, and Schubert

Ran Dank

By Philippa Kiraly

Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival is a joy in the midst of July’s usual musical dearth. Concerts come up three times a week, each with stellar performances and programs which are never boring. Even very familiar pieces receive illuminating performances which bring out facets not perceived before.

Friday’s performance at Nordstrom Recital Hall was a case in point. Frank Bridge is a composer we don’t often hear. He worked at the beginning of the 20th century in England, at a time when the only towering figure in English music was Edward Elgar. Bridge’s chamber music is well worth a hearing.

The 1907 “Phantasie” Trio on this program is late romantic in style but not derivative of other composers, and its unexpected tonal departures mark it as 20th century. It’s clear that Bridge had a special fondness for the piano, which has the major role here, though not to the extent of upsetting the balance between the three instruments. Adam Neiman gave it loving and expansive care, both in the fiercely energetic as well as the expressive slow sections.

He was well matched with violinist Nurit Bar-Josef and cellist Bion Tsang. Tsang always brings a relaxed depth to the sound he draws from his instrument which sings in consequence, and Bar-Josef’s playing had the same quality.
In an excellent contrast, Stravinsky’s “Suite Italienne”for violin and piano followed. This enchanting suite, modeled afer the Italian baroque, is nevertheless unmistakable Stravinsky: spare and clean, with quirks and unexpected detail, little bits of filigree here and sudden changes there. Violinist Andrew Wan, a welcome newcomer to this year’s festival, and pianist Ran Dank both took an approach following Stravinsky’s, that less is more here. One could hear every note and yet be aware of banked fires which flared up from time to time, particularly through Dank’s gentle, rock-solid beat which anchored the work. Wan’s playing (on an 18th century Bergonzi violin) has an exquisite pearly timbre, sweet and light most of the time, a bit shiny at the top of the range, and he used vibrato sparingly, appropriate to the baroque style.

Finally came Schubert’s Quintet in C Major for strings, written only a couple of months before he died of typhoid, but with no sense of doom in it. It’s fascinating to see, and the instrumentalists made it clear, how Schubert moves the melody from one player to another seamlessly, and shares it out equally among all the players. This quintet has two cellos which one might think would overload at the bass end, but the composer gives prominence to first one, then the other and neither takes over.

Among the felicities of this performance were cellist Edward Arron’s rich flowing sound where he had the lead, and the nuances of cellist Robert deMaine’s plucked strings, where each note had shape and meaning. James Ehnes and Augustin Hadelich, both playing Stradivarius violins, and violist Richard O’Neill joined them in a riveting performance full of life and shape, sparkle and clarity, urgency and absolute togetherness.

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