Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion closes out SSO chamber series

Michael Crusoe. Photo courtesy Seattle Times and Ellen Banner.

If you made it to the Nordstrom Recital Hall last Friday you were likely part of history. Not history of the epoch altering kind, but of the musical kind. It was the first time many of the people in the audience, most with decades of experience with Seattle’s classical music scene, could recall a live performance of Bela Bartok’s daunting Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. The piece was part of the Seattle Symphony’s final chamber concert of the season. The program also featured Bartok’s Contrasts, Mendelssohn’s First Piano Trio, and George Enescu’s Impressions d’enfance for violin and piano.

Balance problems, especially coming from the piano plagued most of the performances.  This is a familiar story for the recital hall.  Sometimes this problem is overcome, other times not so much. The only piece where the musicians seemed to conquer the hall’s notably fussy acoustic was the Mendelssohn trio. Kimberly Russ, the Seattle Symphony’s resident pianist, has probably spent more time grappling with Benaroya and Nordstrom’s acoustic than any of the other pianists playing on the program. This came through in a tempered performance at the keyboard which allowed the eloquent playing of cellist Roberta Downey and violinist Jeannie Wells Yablonsky to be heard. Although I would hardly describe the trio’s performance as fiery, it wasn’t merely a competent run through of the piece either. Russ, Downey, and Yablonsky made this work sound philosophical and mature.

Mendelssohn’s trio followed Enescu’s Impressions d’enfance. This suite of miniature movements depicts different moments during a day in the composer’s life. Impression lacks the melodic charisma of the Mendelssohn trio. But, it abounds in technical challenges for the violin and piano. Artur Zadinsky met the rigors of the work with the abundant skill one expects from musicians in a world-class orchestra like the Seattle Symphony. One of the pleasures of the Seattle Symphony chamber concerts is hearing section musicians like Zadinsky occupy the spotlight on their own and excel in chamber repertory.

The rest of the night was devoted to two pieces by Bela Bartok. The week before, offered a lucid and radiant performance of the composer’s popular Concerto for Orchestra. Of Bartok’s many works it is friendly on the ears. By comparison, Contrasts — expertly performed by Yablonsky, clarinetist Laurie DeLuca, and pianist Judith Cohen– has moments which challenge the listener. But it was the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion with its throttling rhythms which pummeled the audience the most.  Seattle Symphony timpanist Michael Crusoe’s performance, pulsing with intensity, anchored the performance.  He was ably supported by the piano duo of Christina Valdes and Oksana Ezhokina who together furiously tackled Bartok’s mind boggling piano music.  Then there was Michael Werner, principal percussionist of the Seattle Symphony.   Werner’s percussion work was always well judged, adding texture to the cyclonic music swirling and storming from Valdes, Ezkohina, and Crusoe.

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