Faure’s First Piano Quartet a winner at SCMS winter festival

William Wolfram and Phillippe Quint. Photo Naxos.

Year after year, program after program, the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s summer and winter festivals tend to stay with listeners long after they have wrapped up.  Inevitably some performances are better than others.  The good ones are gripping, insightful, or intelligent.  Because of this the six-week long summer festival and much shorter weekend long winter festival are so popular they attract subscribers who focus all of their attention at the festivals. This year’s winter festival, marked by a concert that featured all of the piano trios Johannes Brahms penned and a series of recitals where pianist Adam Neiman played all 12 Transcendental Etudes of Franz Liszt, was no different.

But it wasn’t just these two events that made the festival another worthy addition to Seattle’s chamber music scene. Sunday’s final program was a winner with the sold out crowd.  The program featured Gabriel Faure’s First Piano Quartet, Dvorak’s Op. 87 Piano Quartet, and in the lead off position on the program, Mendelssohn’s lesser-known First Piano Trio.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t the Dvorak quartet which left the strongest impression, but the two pieces on the first half of the program. Neither the Faure nor the Mendelssohn is as popular as the Dvorak, but the performance of each piece was hard not to like.

In the Mendelssohn trio it was William Wolfram’s dynamic keyboard work, that at times veered toward the impulsive, which made for an exciting opening. His fellow musicians for the piece – Emily Daggett Smith on violin and Andres Diaz on cello – were more measured.  Wolfram’s capable hands successfully carried the piece.

The Faure quartet’s elegiac character, sophisticated French facade, and open instrumental writing often spotlighted the middle and lower voiced instruments. Of course, two long-time festival musicians – Ronald Thomas and Richard O’Neill – didn’t disappoint. If the piano quartet seemed aimless and even a bit artificial, these sentiments vanished in the adagio third movement. It is in this movement that Faure lets his emotional guard down and produces an outpouring of feeling that is not only the highlight of the entire quartet, but for me was the highlight of the entire concert.

The concert ended with Dvorak’s quartet: A popular piece with audiences and a staple of the festival repertory. Its opening string statement is burned in the mind of every chamber music lover. On Sunday the piece came across well with Ida Levin playing violin and Erin Keefe on viola. Adam Neiman was at piano and Edward Arron on cello. I prefer Keefe on violin. Levin, as always, was a good leader. Neiman who finished the Transcendental Etudes earlier in the day, made spirited work of Dvorak’s piano part. As is usually the case with Seattle audiences, a standing ovation greeted the musicians even as I felt indifferent. Maybe this quartet needs to be shelved for a while?

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