Chamber fest: lighten up, please

The Seattle winter festival concludes, with some problems in the balance of strings and piano in Nordstrom Recital Hall.

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Johannes Brahms

The Seattle winter festival concludes, with some problems in the balance of strings and piano in Nordstrom Recital Hall.

Ilya Kaler and Amit Peled on violin and cello with pianist Alon Goldstein carried the short Seattle Chamber Music Society's winter festival forward to its second concert on Friday. Their program was devoted entirely to the three piano trios of Brahms. Three Brahms trios in a row made for a heavy evening, though it was sensible to put the earlier trio, with its jubilant finale, at the end of the program.

Brahms' three piano trios more or less span his creative life, two being products of his maturity and the first of his youth though he revised and shortened it several decades later. Hearing them all together was interesting. As one would expect there is a greater concentration and subtlety of style and structure in the later pieces (even after the first trio’s shortening) and some loss of exuberance.

The players brought a high level of expertise and endurance to their long and demanding program. The performances came across as highly projected "concerto-style" affairs rather than intimate chamber-music-making. It was hard to discern whether this was a deliberate choice; or a product of the Nordstrom Recital Hall’s resonant but not especially mellow acoustics, which favor the piano over the strings; or whether it is inherently difficult for violin and cello to compete with a nine-foot Steinway and Brahms' never light-handed piano writing. The best moments for me came in the inner movements where the writing is lighter — the Magyar-inflected Andante and the fizzing Scherzo movement in the Opus 87 trio, for example.

On Saturday evening, four violinists, two violists, three cellists, and three pianists — a characteristically generous Seattle Chamber Society volume of musicians — shared a more varied program. It opened with Beethoven's own arrangement for string trio and piano of his youthful Quintet for piano and winds. This is a worthy tribute to Mozart's great wind and piano quintet but has a forthright charm of its own. It received an excellent performance, notable especially for Stefan Jackiw's intense and refined playing on violin, particularly in soft passages, and Jeewon Park's stylish piano playing.

Next came Arensky's quintet for piano and strings, a rarely heard but genial and melodic piece given a warm and convinced performance by Erin Keefe and Scott Yoo on violins, Richard O’Neill on viola with William Wolfram playing the virtuoso piano part.

To end the evening we had Rachmaninoff's Trio for violin, cello, and piano played by Ida Levin, Andres Diaz, and pianist Adam Neiman. This is a sombre piece, inspired by Tchaikovsky's death. As one would expect from the composer/pianist, it has a dominating and highly demanding piano part very effectively delivered by Neiman. Even so it does work as a trio and the three performers were particularly effective in delivering its quiet and intense closing bars.

These two concerts were enthusiastically received by capacity audiences. There was an equally enthusiastic response to the second installment of the Liszt Transcendental Studies given by Adam Neiman in a pre-concert recital on Saturday: extraordinary music finely played.


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