Updated Tuesday, January 22, 2013 at 01:46 PM
Making musical programs and performing them are two very different arts. But in the person of James Ehnes, now in his second season at its head, the Seattle Chamber Music Society has clearly found an artistic director equally gifted at both. The Canadian violinist is already well established as one of his instrument’s finest living exponents. And Sunday’s program in Benaroya’s Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall served to confirm that he is not just a pretty bow arm, but a musical thinker of substance.
Whether by conscious intent or through instinctive insight on Ehnes’ part, the Brahms First Sextet, with its scherzo’s cheerfully respectful echoes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, seemed just made to end an afternoon that had begun, in the customary preconcert recital, with the Shostakovich Viola Sonata. For that work too is full of such allusions to earlier music, from Beethoven’s to some of Shostakovich’s own works.
Violist Toby Appel noted these in his illuminating (and at times hilarious) introductory remarks. He then proceeded to play this warmly expressive piece superbly, with tone that ranged from a meaningful whisper to a positively overwhelming grandeur, and with a considerable variety of timbre in the music’s frequent pizzicatos.
Having partnered Appel with impressive address in the Shostakovich, pianist Jeewon Park returned to begin the concert proper with Bartók’s already somewhat percussive Suite, Op. 14, which was followed by the same composer’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Strongly supported by Michael Werner and Michael Crusoe (principal percussionist and timpanist respectively of the Seattle Symphony), Max Levinson and Park skillfully encompassed the music’s wide variety of moods, from the thoughtfully mysterious to the robustly eupeptic.
Regarding the pairing that followed intermission, the artistic director’s intent was clear. Brahms’ sumptuous First Sextet, a work that reveals remarkable maturity on the part of its youthful composer, was preceded by the composer’s solo piano arrangement of its wonderful slow-movement variations in D minor. The juxtaposition threw intriguing light on the feeling for tone-color possessed by a composer too often accused of lacking it.
The piano version of the variations emerged with powerful intensity under Levinson’s hands. The sextet, in its full version for strings, was then accorded an interpretation that — with the first movement’s exposition repeat properly observed — fully realized its breadth of design and warmth of expression. In the slow movement, Appel again shone with his gleaming delivery of the theme’s opening phrase. Violinist Emily Daggett Smith (with Ehnes taking the second chair) took up the melody with comparable ardor.
Once or twice in the rest of the piece, as at the little cadence figure in the finale’s main theme, I could have welcomed a more playful turn of phrase a la Casals. But for the rest, these three contrived, along with second violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt and cellists Julie Albers and Jeremy Turner, to fashion a performance of irrepressible élan.
Bernard Jacobson: email@example.com
Seattle Chamber Music Society Winter Festival
Festival continues Thursday-Saturday in Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hal, 200 University St., Seattle; $15-$45 (206-283-8808 or go to www.seattlechambermusic.org)