By Philippa Kiraly
It’s always enlightening to go to hear Seattle Symphony musicians playing chamber music, as they now do regularly at Nordstrom Recital Hall. The chance to hear players not merged in a group, with often unusual offerings, were again what drew audience to Friday night’s concert.
The unusual was the string quartet, his only one, composed by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos in 1945. This is a remarkable work, some 30 minutes long, of considerable complexity: a piece that would take multiple hearings to take in its full measure, its layers, its intricate justapositions of rhythm and melody, its combination of European style and Brazilian musical heritage. It would be hard to hum any part of it, though often one instrument would have a long melodic line with the other two playing unexpected decorative accompaniments around it. It was given a masterly performance by violinist Mariel Bailey, cellist Bruce Bailey and guest cellist Laura Renz, a well balanced trio.
The ensuing Richard Strauss’ Violin Sonata in E-Flat major could however have been titled in this performance as Piano Sonata with violin accompaniment. Balance was extremely lopsided with the extensive piano part in an over-enthusiastic performance all too often rolling over the violin.
Emma McGrath, associate concertmaster of the Symphony, is a very fine player with beautiful, honeyed depth to her tone, but only in patches could one hear this. The sound of her violin was rarely completely drowned but often it could only be heard as a thin line.
The pianist was Ben Hausmann, the orchestra’s excellent and sensitive principal oboe, wearing another hat. From the start his approach to the Strauss was startling, cutting where it should have been just crisp, over loud where it needed just to be loud, often with entrances out of sync with the flow of the music. The piano part is huge.
Strauss, probably also in an excess of enthusiasm (he was only 23 when he composed it) wrote a very heavy part with a plethora of notes, seemingly almost as many as a Brahms piano concerto. Hausmann played with a great deal of pedal and unfortunately quite a few missed or incorrect notes and what felt like disregard for the violin.
Where he did play more quietly, his touch and innate sensitivity came back to the fore, and the duet between the two instruments were something to be savored, but these moments were too few.
Finally, concertmaster Maria Larionoff with guest pianist Robin McCabe played another violin sonata, this time No. 2 in D Major by Prokofiev.
It felt like coming home to hear this familiar work, after the demanding, fascinating Villa-Lobos, and the assault of the Strauss. These two played as a violin sonata should be played, as a matched pair, with the melodies and harmonies of each instrument interweaving to create a nuanced whole. The result was sheer pleasure.