Seattle Chamber Music's Auspicious Opening Concert
The Seattle Chamber Music Society celebrating its 35th year opened its Summer Festival season the fifth of July with a program sparkling, nourishing and profound. This evening was introduced by the James Ehnes String Quartet, named after its leader who is also the artistic director of SCMS, playing Beethoven's Op. 18 #5. Ever fascinating for its internal dialogues with a sprightliness and honesty that could effortlessly touch on the mysterious, this reading, so natural, had not a trace of bombast, of didacticism. 'Gemütlichkeit' could describe the beginning Allegro and Menuetto movements, the first, fresh; the second with an intimacy, despite a closing possibly dry, that was fulfilled in the Andante cantabile, which had a luminosity of approach that brought to mind the art of Wilhelm Kempf. At its conclusion, Mr. Ehnes and the second violinist, Amy Schwartz Moretti, proved the ideal summation with a sonority inexpressible, unknown. The final Allegro was marked by an unfusty elegance, a robustness that almost never flagged.
Mr. Ehnes eloquently introduced the concert proper with words of tribute to Toby Saks, the founder and devoted director of the Society for 32 years until her death in 2013. Violinist Arnaud Sussman and pianist Jeewon Park opened the curtains with Mozart's A major Violin Sonata K. 305. If the balance could be considered historically appropriate with the piano to the fore, Mr. Sussman's lovely subtle internal shapings only became apparent in the later variations of the Andante grazioso. Marked by élan, his colorings were pastel. Ms. Park was vigorous, playing with a bright tone. There were some odd timing affects that divided phrases, some ending inconclusively. Ambiguous too was the theme of the second movement. The minor variation compensated for being so tightly reined in with articulations more precious than compelling. The concluding Allegro was a splendid romp to cap this fine performance.
Schumann's E Flat Piano Quartet was fueled with enthusiastic ebullience and sensitivity by pianist Andrew Armstrong, and commanded by cellist Edward Arron with magnificent tone from his Grancino, a sound uncommonly open and warmly inviting. In the recap to the first movement's Allegro ma non troppo, Mr. Armstrong's rapture coalesced his colleagues to agree. If the ensemble was excellent and tempo brilliant in the Scherzo, dynamics were not specific enough, though the balance between piano and lower strings in the unisons produced an marvelous bassoon-like impishness. Violist Kirsten Docter's contributions were gracious, with a demure appeal. In the last two movements, fluidity seemed to replace carefully considered decisions and hierarchies of voicing, and the music became cluttered in the coda of the finale, the accelerando more rushed than impetuous so as to be incomprehensible. Emily Daggett Smith, the violinist, played sweetly, but might consider a more masculine and striking attitude in this role.
Beethoven's A minor String Quartet Op. 132 followed intermission. The Ehnes Quartet delivered a performance of Dostoyevskian dimension, of an anguish of spiritual crisis. Cellist Robert DeMaine threw down the gauntlet with his first two tones, searing in their quiet desperation, haunted, a voice from the beyond. To the end of the work his partners Mr. Ehnes, Ms. Schwartz Moretti and violist Richard O'Neill astounded; they did not play their instruments, they pleaded through them. There was an internal dynamic where the boundaries of art to life and life to art ceased to exist. Mr. Ehnes held together what could have been a wreck with the greatest masterful compassion; it was overwhelming to witness him steadying the course of an intensity that threatened madness. If the opening was the introduction to a tragedy, the second movement had to take its time for everyone to breathe. The musette of the trio had the purity of a vision, the rush of a lifetime's worth of memories, and the return was divine.
The Heiliger Dankgesang here was a heartbreak, wondrously introducing dissolution. To say the players didn't coordinate their bow strokes is entirely inconsequential. It was as if they were responding to one other from the greatest distance, each contemplating the solitude of death. The music came to an end in a disintegration more pessimistic than Kierkegaard's. There must have been applause; this auditor can't remember. The great emptiness of mind from this shattering performance was filled with a buzzing. I thank these artists for an experience never to be forgotten.