by | Feb 8, 2013 | Classical CD Reviews

Music @ Menlo – Live 2012 – “Resonance:” Music by SCHUBERT, BEETHOVEN, SIBELIUS, BARBER, CHEN YI, DEBUSSY, ALBENIZ, MAHLER, BACH, STRAUSS, BARTOK, COPLAND, DVORAK, FAURE, HERMANN, RESPIGHI, MENDELSSOHN, MOSZKOWSKI, SCHOENFIELD, SCHUMANN, CAPLET, CHAUSSON – Escher String Quartet/Jeffrey Kahane/Kelly Markgraf/David Finckel/Wu Han/Gilbert Kalish/Arnaud Sussmann/Susanne Mentzer/Ani Kavafian/Benjamin Beilman/Juho Pohjonen/Inon Barnatan/Carol Wincenc/ Jorja Fleezanis, and many others – (6 CDs) each available separately: $15, or the six slipcased: $75, (Distr. by – digital downloads available on amazon) *****:  

This 6-CD set documents some of the performances during the Tenth Anniversary season of Music at Menlo, the three week chamber music festival on the Peninsula in the Bay Area. There is nothing to replace being at the Festival, as the multitude of activities available offer an in-depth chamber music experience for participants. There are 12 professional concerts; four Encounter presentations; 5 Carte Blanche performances; 16 free (and often superb) concerts by pre-professional Chamber Music Institute students; master classes; Café Conversations by performers and administrators; and a Listening Room of audio and video recordings. The theme of the 2012 concerts is Resonance – exploring a listener’s reaction to a variety of chamber music.

What make these CDs a vibrant and unusual listening experience is the variety of chamber music played; the incredibly high level of performances (the mix of seasoned and passionate young professionals produces a frisson that results in exciting musical events); and the amazing sonic quality of these recordings. That’s due to six-time Grammy Award winning recording producer Da-Hong Seetoo, who records with sense of presence and realism that will amaze those who revel in audiophile sound quality. He’s been doing this since the beginning of the Festival, and his custom designed microphones, monitor speakers and computer software communicate the excitement of the live event, without audience applause.

CD 1 – Sustained – Finding Strength

In the Schubert Fantasy for violin and piano in C Major, violinist Benjamin Beilman and pianist Juho Pohjonen create a partnership that is virtuosic without eschewing the melodic genius of this late Schubert masterpiece. Beilman’s tone is bright without being shrill, his vibrato heartfelt without being sentimental. Pohjonen’s dynamics are well judged and never overwhelms Beilman. The famous finale has an urgency that’s bracing without being rushed. Their Beethoven Piano Trio, Op. 70, No. 2, with cellist David Finckel is classically Viennese – leisurely Romantic tempos, mellow and intimate in a Schubertian way. The finale has a Haydnesque verve and genialty that made me smile.

CD 2 Transported: Sonic Journeys, near and far.

Kelly Markgraf is a baritone with a deep, strong voice with great expressive power. These traits make Barber’s Dover Beach (with the Escher String Quartet) an appropriately somber musical depiction of the narrowest point of the English Channel. Chen Yi’s brief Romance of Hsaio and Ch’in is sweetly played by pianist Jeffrey Kahane and violinist Jorja Fleezanis. Kahane and Wu Han invest Debussy’s Six epigraphes antiques with eroticism and sensuality. Kahane’s Evocation from Iberia Suite, Book 1 is laid back and dreamy, gorgeously phrased, a sensitive version of Spanish impressionism. And, yet, the dance could have been more energetic. The Escher Quartet’s Sibelius String Quartet, Voices Intimae, is a brilliant, heartfelt performance that effectively expresses the composer’s mid-life crisis of illness and money management. The beautiful adagio yearns for answers while accepting the sadness and hope for a better future. Especially effective is cellist Dane Johansen’s evocation of the composer’s supplication for spiritual peace. In 1921, Edwin Stein, a supporter of Mahler’s music, arranged a chamber version of the last movement, Das himmlische Leben, of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. I was surprised that the twelve instruments effectively conveyed the orchestration, adding a clarity and intimacy. Suzanne Mentzler’s mezzo-soprano voice was a little heavy (more earthly than heavenly) in depicting a child’s view of heaven, but she sings very beautifully. This unique version transported me to Mahler’s musical heaven.

CD 3 – Motivated – Invitation to the Dance

The Bach Suite No. 2 benefits from beautiful solo turns, modern instruments and sane (not too fast) tempos. Arnold Schoenberg’s arrangement of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Kaiserwalzer, Op. 437 demonstrates how creative the avante-garde master could be – and the performance has élan and nineteenth century swagger. Debussy’s Danses sacree et profane highlights harpist Bridget Kibbey’s gorgeous playing and the clarity of a chamber group. The chamber version of Bartok’s Seven Romanian Folk Dances adds weight without diminishing the snappy rhythms of the Transylvanian folk dances. The chamber version of Copland’s famous ballet Appalachian Spring is beautifully and warmly performed, with star turns by flutist Carol Wincenc and clarinetist Jose Franch-Ballester.

CD 4 – Impassioned – Listeners on Fire

The Dvorak Piano Trio in f minor may be less well known than some of his other three trios, but it has no dearth of melodies that endear him to listeners. More Eurocentric than Czech, there’s a Brahmsian influence that is beautifully realized by the musicians. David Finckel’s rich and deeply felt cello is maturity personified, and he’s matched by Arnaud Sussman’s singing higher registers. The touching coda of the last movement will break your heart. Wu Han’s quicksilver piano playing make Faure’s Piano Quartet No. 2 glitter with passion, astound with virtuosity, and shimmer with delicacy.

CD 5 – Enhanced – Tales Intensified

One of the highlights of the set is the nine string version of Bernard Hermann’s Psycho Suite for Strings. Here the shower scene where Janet Leigh is stabbed is almost more viscerally horrifying without the visuals – and each individual stringed instrument (especially the bass) can be felt as well as heard. Respighi’s Il Tramonto is a 15-minute work for mezzo soprano and string quartet based on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “The Sunset.” Suzanne Mentzer’s rich, dusky voice adds depth to her portrayal of an aging woman recalling grief, love, longing and death. Violist Geraldine Walther’s solo turn to end the work is a song of great love and beauty. Both Mendelssohn’s Allegro brilliant for Piano, Four Hands and Mozkowski’s Suite for two violins and piano evoke a different emotion – one exciting, and the other melodic. Paul Schoenfield’s 1990 Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano is an inventive and entertaining work that’s inspired by the composer’s Hassidic experience that uses chromaticism, glissandos, abundant melodies and dance to express humor, a diabolical march, a meditative and spiritual calm, and a celebration.

CD 6 – Human Imagination

Schumann’s Marchenbilder (Fairy Tale Pictures) provides an opportunity for violist Richard O’Neill to beautifully express a range of emotions from melancholy to a high-spirited march. Caplet’s Conte Fantastique (The Masque of the Red Death) is a tone poem for harp and strings that chillingly recreates the mood of Edgar Allen Poe’s story of a prince trying to escape the plague. What spooky fun! Chausson’s Concerto in D Major for Violin, Piano and String Quartet makes no apology for it’s French romanticism, with violinist Ani Kafavian a sensitive and dramatic leader.

These six CDs will transport you to one of the world’s great chamber music festivals, with a variety of works that are superbly performed and recorded.

—Robert Moon

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