Music@Menlo Live: Season 6 (2008): The Unfolding of Music II – (Various composers and artists, recorded between July 19 and August 2 in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto) – Music@Menlo LIVE Season 6, 5 CDs available either in a slip case ($75) or individually ($17 each) from firstname.lastname@example.org (375:30) ****:
It is a happy trend that the chamber music world is coming to be recognized through such commemorative sets as the sixth offering from Palo Alto-based Music@Menlo, a summer chamber music festival and institute in the San Francisco Bay Area founded by David Finckel and Wu Han, engineered by Grammy Award–winning recording producer Da-Hong Seetoo.
The music-making is very generous, coming from the hearts of musicians who not only care about the music they play but enjoy it as well, and hearing music made in contexts which mix youngsters and veterans playing for audiences that deeply appreciate them is a perfect prescription for making music come alive. Whether as a souvenir of past Festivals or an opportunity to stockpile some outstanding chamber music performances, this sixth installment of Music@Menlo is a treasure.
Disc One (Bach, Brahms, Stravinsky, Tan Dun) – At its best, the sound has a light, indescribably airy and almost tangible feel to it, as at the beginning of the third Brandenburg Concerto featuring some wonderfully phrased and sprung work from solo violinist Erin Keefe (although the lack of even an attempt at Baroque ornamentation or style quickly becomes tiresome). Brahms’s Horn Trio and Stravinsky’s Three Pieces (the latter with the Escher Quartet) are beautifully if dutifully performed. Tan Dun’s Elegy: Snow in June (1991) for solo cello and four percussionists (whose tasks include tearing paper and “playing” stones and cans) is a brilliantly-colored, riveting set of free variations in a spectacular recording.
Disc Two (Purcell, Haydn, Schumann, Britten and Kenneth Frazelle) – The Purcell Fantasy on modern instruments is a laborious affair, and Haydn’s “Sunrise” Quartet lacks character until the last two movements. Things pick up when rising superstar clarinetist Anthony McGill (who with Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Gabriela Montero is scheduled to perform on the Presidential inauguration program Jan. 20) shows why Schumann’s lovely Op. 73 Fantasy Pieces belong on the clarinet and not the cello. The world premiere of Music@Menlo’s first commission, an achingly beautiful Piano Trio by composer Kenneth Frazelle reflecting the loveliness of his North Carolina roots, is a total success.
Disc Three (Corelli, Albinoni, Haydn, Dvorak, Prokofiev, Louis Gruenberg) – After more faceless Baroque performances, an outstanding performance of Haydn’s rarely-heard E minor Piano Trio, Dvorak’s Op. 74 Terzetto (complete with a reference to Beethoven’s Op. 132, it’s the composer’s gift to string quartets whose cellist is late for rehearsal), and Prokofiev’s charming Overture on Hebrew Themes (one of the glories of the set) follow. Louis Gruenberg’s Four Diversions for string quartet (1930) is a great discovery, mixing European edginess and with American populism (it’s also the Escher Quartet’s best playing in the set).
Disc Four (Giovanni Legrenzi, Schubert, Hugo Wolf, Shostakovich) – Leading off with a magnificent performance of a 17th century sonata by Giovanni Legrenzi (including a wonderful contribution by bassoonist Dennis Godburn) is followed by a fleet, elegant and exciting Schubert Octet (again featuring McGill’s exquisite playing) which might be the set’s single most outstanding performance.
Disc Five (Rossi, Schumann, Debussy, Frank) – The performance of the Schumann is on the cusp of being one of the most exciting recent rethinks of Schumann’s iconic Piano Quintet, an important performance led by pianist Wu Han which abounds in creative touches, both individually and as a group, and completely overcomes the awkwardness of structure and fragmentation that the music poses. In Debussy’s Violin Sonata, there is a slight imbalance in favor of the violin but Ian Swensen’s sound is well worth it and pianist Anna Polonsky’s sound is so charismatic that she shines throughout. Five songs from Gabriela Lena Frank’s “ongoing” cycle, Songs of Cifar and the Sweet Sea, bring the five CDs to a conclusion – deeply poignant, emotionally conflicted, and beautifully sung by baritone Robert Gardner.
Artistic Administrator Patrick Castillo contributes program notes (except when the composers have written their own) and a brief introduction to the contents of each disc. No timings are supplied, nor artist biographies, or texts for Frank’s songs.
— Laurence Vittes