Thursday, March 27, 2014

Music@Menlo issues handsome 8-CD set making its 2013 season widely available

IVCI bronze medalist Benjamin Beilman
"If you build it, they will come" can be adapted to music festivals as well (if they are run well). And if you record it, many who couldn't come will be able to share the experience of those who did.

An estimable chamber-music series in the attractive setting of the Menlo School in the Bay Area community of Atherton, Calif., can boast an unusually polished way for music-lovers everywhere to access what happens at the annual festival.

Music@Menlo LIVE's "From Bach," its title indicating the foundation of chamber-music repertoire today in the German master's works, consists of eight CDs. All of but two of them open with music by J.S. Bach and fan out from there to a broad range of standard repertory up through Bartok, Britten, and Shostakovich.

For the Bach selections, and given the focus of the invited artists, modern instruments are the rule, of course, which will disturb some devotees of authentic-instruments performance. Nowadays, everyone has learned from early-music orthodoxy. So when you listen to such a piece as the Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor, you hear a regular push and snap to the rhythms and a chasteness with respect to vibrato and dynamics that make the learned style successful.

That's in a performance on Volume 3, with soloists Kristin Lee (violin) and James Austin Smith (oboe) accompanied by a six-piece ensemble. It's typical of the excellence of the set.

Most of the players are not widely known, with the exceptions of the couple who direct the festival, pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel, and veteran pianist Gilbert Kalish, whose triumphant interpretations in the series include the same CD's Mozart Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major. Others are esteemed mostly within the music community.

The Mozart concerto works well with the minimal accompaniment of string quintet; Kalish's feeling for the solo part has the right amount of charm and more than enough facility and tonal balance. One name that will stand out more than usual to Indianapolis music-lovers is that of violinist Benjamin Beilman, who won the bronze medal in the 2010 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.  Again focusing on Volume 3, he is soloist (along with Wu Han) in Mendelssohn's youthful, exuberantly prolix Double Concerto in D minor for Piano and Violin.

Other highlights for me:

  • The Danish String Quartet's performances of two Joseph Haydn quartets — Quartet in F minor, op. 20, no. 5, and the "Quinten" (D minor, op. 76, no. 2) — as well as its illuminating collaboration with Kalish in Shostakovich's Piano Quintet in G minor, op. 57. The fourth-movement Intermezzo manages to be sweet and stark at the same time; its well-sustained delicate mood shades into something more urgent, as so often in Shostakovich.
  • More Bach:  The 10-player Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, with Wu Han at the harpsichord, displays pinpoint coordination among the three string groups (violins, violas, cellos) that in the outer movements resembles a time-trial for putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
  •  The almost raw but ultimately winning interpretation of Bartok's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion by Kalish and Wu Han at the keyboards and Christopher Froh and Ian Rosenbaum handling the percussion.
The recorded sound is bright and forward. It is only glaring once — in Gilles Vonsattel's performance of Shostakovich's Prelude and Fugue No. 4 in E minor.

Another marvelous thing about this release is that the performances are distraction-free, like studio recordings. There's no program-rustling or coughing from the audience (which must be among the most self-restrained anywhere), and the enthusiastic applause that surely followed most of these performances has been crisply excised by the engineers.