Monday, July 31, 2023

Music@Menlo, week two

Last week was the second week of the annual three week chamber music festival, and I've been busy. My editor asked me to cover Thursday's mainstage concert, which was the late Romantic entry in the historical survey of chamber music, and Friday's "Overture concert" in the same review. The Overtures are collaborations between the mainstage artists and the 'young professionals,' who are here in a student capacity but, really, are fully professional in every way. They put on the Prelude concerts before the mainstage events, and they're often better. I threw in a paragraph on Thursday's for no extra charge.

So here's that monster, having been trimmed by my editors lightly but intelligently, in the manner of a delicate haircut. The briefer pieces in the mainstage event could have been cut with no loss, but the big solemn Brahms and Dvořák, plus the strange and weird Suk and Elgar quintets in the Overture, were all very nicely done. I like piano quintets (that's quintets for piano and strings); they're my favorite genre of chamber music, and to get three of them - Beach, Suk, and Elgar - plus Brahms's clarinet quintet in two concerts, with Bloch's quintet coming up (I heard that on Sunday, much better than the usual performance), was a delight.

I also snuck into an earlier Prelude concert the previous Sunday for a chance to hear Brahms's Op. 25 piano quartet, another favorite work (Beethoven's "Ghost" piano trio was also on the program). Because the clarinet would be so prominent in Thursday's concert and also on next Sunday's which I was also to review, I decided to go to the clarinetist's master class, which was on Tuesday. Since the students (both levels) are only strings and piano, this was an opportunity to hear what happens when none of the students are playing the master class instructor's instrument.

Some master class instructors focus closely on the instruments they know. If it's a piano-and-strings work and the instructor is a string player, the pianist may not get a single word of advice. Or, even more conspicuously, if the instructor is a pianist, the student pianist may get all the attention while the string players are ignored. The best instructors don't do that, and focus more on the general import and effect of the sound, and not on technical details of playing. That way they can address all their students at once. The clarinetist was fairly good at that, though it turned out that the Beethoven violin, cello, and piano trio being played was actually an alternative edition of a trio for clarinet, cello, and piano, which the clarinetist knew well and indeed kept saying clarinet when he meant violin.

The second of the weekly Young Performers concerts (these are the teens and preteens, also amazingly professional) was on my must-go list because it included a movement from Brahms's B-flat Sextet, one of my favorite works ever, and also some other great stuff including two groups doing successively the first and final movements of Dvořák's A major quintet (ta-da, another piano quintet), plus an impressively delicate reading of the opening of Ravel's Piano Trio. The pianist, speaking beforehand, had trouble pronouncing the name Ravel, but she had no trouble playing his music.

I didn't get to any of the Beethoven string quartet concerts, but I did buy the livestream/recorded version of the Razumovsky quartets. But this time I was skeptical of the results. The problem is that the Calidore Quartet's signal virtue is the dry intensity of their playing. This is an enormous, even spellbinding, virtue in some repertoire, but I'm not sure if it's the best way to approach Beethoven. Especially in his late quartets, Beethoven is already dry and intense enough. The way to transcendent performances of those is to crack them open and find the sweet moisture inside. Too many can't do that, but those who can ... yum.

The Razumovskys aren't late works, but something of the same applies. I thought these performances of the first two were dull, dry, and ineffective. For the third quartet, however, the Calidore caught on and did a dandy, lively and effective, job. Should I listen to some more later? My jury is still out on that one.

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