Neiman tackles Transcedental Etudes as part of SCMS festival

By R.M. Campbell

The winter season of the Seattle Chamber Music Festival, which celebrates its 30th season this summer, was always a splendid idea. It was the first venture outside the confines of Lakeside School. This wise expansion was followed by the addition of a summer Eastside venue at the Overlake School. Both have proven to be splendid additions to the core festival for artistic and financial reasons. Among its other attributes, the winter festival opened the doors of Nordstrom Recital Hall which became the summer home of the Seattle festival last year. The festival had the advantage of knowing exactly where it was going when it left the wretched acoustics of St. Nicholas Hall at Lakeside for Nordstrom, a vastly superior space in spite of its quirkiness.

There were four concerts over the weekend, beginning on Thursday evening and ending Sunday afternoon, all sold-out or nearly so. Repertory rarely went beyond the canon, but there were points of interest. The concert Saturday night was devoted to the piano trios of Johannes Brahms — talk about intellectual comfort on a winter’s day — and pianist Adam Neiman played all of the “Transcedental Etudes” of Franz Lizst over three days.

Liszt is not the only composer to write monumental etudes: Chopin did a series in the early part of the 19th century, which have never been equalled musically, and Rachmaninoff offered two sets in the early part of the 20th century. Liszt’s dozen are played here and there as separate entities, rarely a group on the single evening. All of the sets are lined with mammoth technical difficulties that tax even the virtuoso.

Neiman played the 12 in groups of 4, occupying the whole of the pre-concert recital. There was no question Neiman would manage the problems very well, given his long and distinguished history with the festival. He has the double notes, sweeping arpeggios, double octaves at high speed and finger work required, not to mention sheer endurance. He was a good advocate for these etudes, even the problem ones..

With his own extraordinary technical facility — a virtuoso by any definition — Liszt loved to write bravura music for the piano. More than occasionally one wants to cry for a simple melody or phrase. He can be bombastic, over-reaching, exhausting. Such are some of the etudes. Neiman did not rearrange their order. He played them straight through with all the might he could summon. Even though not all the etudes performed on Saturday could be called distinguished, they do provide an insight into Liszt — his concentration and single-mindedness. That Neiman conveyed readily. Doing the etudes in one week must have been something he wanted to explore, which the festival’s artistic director Toby Saks allowed him to do, and quite rightly.

Beethoven’s E-flat Piano Quartet (Op. 16), which opened the concert, is a different kettle of fish, if one can be slightly vulgar. It is of completely different nature from the Liszt with its ebullience and spirit, despite a rather pompous beginning. That is how it was performed on Saturday by Stefan Jackiw, violin; Emily Daggett Smith, viola; Edward Arron, cello, and Jeewon Park, piano. The piece is remarkably witty and lyrical with bright textures. Led ably by Jackiw, the four musicians provided energy but did not push beyond the boundaries set by the composer. The piece never seemed hurried.

Putting Anton Arensky’s Piano Quintet in D and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Trio in D Minor (“Elegiac”) on one half of a program might seem an excess of high romanticism. And it was on Saturday. The Rachmaninoff needed more room to breathe. That said, they were given handsome performances. Erin Keefe and Scot Yoo were the violinists and Richard O’Neill, viola; Ronald Thomas, cello, and William Wolfram, piano. Both O’Neill and Thomas were particularly notable for their various solos. Violinst Ida Levin, cellist Andres Diaz and Neiman gave a full-throated account of the Rachmaninoff. The work so favors the piano that it mars the work on the whole.

Two last observations. First, the piano often seemed out of balance with the strings. Too much sound overpowering everyone else. Second, we live in a casual age, which is reflected in concert dress, especially the men. Tashi started this transformation in the 1970s and then it was quite exotic. Now, it is commonplace. The festival has stayed in touch with the times with various versions of concert dress, always stylish. But the cellist who wore a turtle neck sweater with sleeves pulled up to nearly the elbows was beyond the pale.

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