Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Multiple glories of chamber music in "Around Dvorak," Music@Menlo's 9-disc survey of its 2014 season

What a groaning board of rich, recorded musical food I've been digesting recently! The 2014 season of Music at Menlo, a chamber music festival in the San Francisco Bay Area, is available on nine CDs under the title "Around Dvorak." (Each disc sells for $15; the complete boxed set is $110.)

The focus is, of course, the down-to-earth Czech master (1841-1904) who helped establish nationalist norms in classical music while upholding the formal and expressive procedures of Romanticism. The "around" in the title allows the repertoire to blossom on the theme of influences and milieus relevant to the beloved composer's work.

The performances are first-rate; the sound quality, pristine. Careful editing means there is no applause to listen to again and again. After some of these performances, that ovation was probably immediate and ecstatic. But it's better that you can listen to the nine discs as if they were studio recordings.

The theme is imaginatively carried out: "Around Dvorak" refers, among other things, to the powerful aura surrounding him on a brief, well-paid teaching visit he made to the U.S. in the 1890s, during which he encouraged American composers to develop their own resources from the songs of the people.

Gilles Vonsattel serves up Gottschalk's patriotic gumbo.
Vol. 6 has a splendid assortment, illustrative of the American habit of bursting bounds, opening with Louis Moreau Gottshalk's tremendous patriotic gumbo, "The Union," played with evident gusto by pianist Gilles Vonsattel. The unbridled muse of Charles Ives gets displayed in several songs for baritone and piano, with Randall Scarlata and Gilbert Kalish perfectly paired in these idiosyncratic pieces.

Contrasts that manage to be complementary as well are typical of the programming  Scarlata's sings George Crumb's spiritual-based "American Songbook II: A Journey Beyond Time," joined by four percussionists and a pianist. The settings have the same kind of stark individualism as the Ives songs. In this case, however, the folk inspirations are respected in their entirety, yet tricked out in characteristically Crumb-like splashes of exotic percussion.

The 2014 festival discs go back before Dvorak's time to explore some of his not-too-distant roots.  The charm of Beethoven's E-Flat Quintet for Piano and Winds, for example, is fully projected by the protean Kalish with windmeisters Stephen Taylor, oboe; Anthony McGill, clarinet; Peter Kolkay, bassoon, and Kevin Rivard, horn.

On the same disc (Vol. 4), you'll find a younger first-rate pianist, Juho Pohjonen, suavely negotiating the nonstop pianistic saturation of Hummel's Septet in D minor, op. 74. He leades a smooth-working ensemble consisting of Taylor, Rivard, flutist Sooyun Kim, violist Paul Neubauer, cellist Keith Robinson, and contrabassist Scott Pingel.

Larger groups also give distinctive presentations. I particularly enjoyed Bartok's Divertimento for String Orchestra (Vol. 5) in a performance whose tart, taut, energetic first movement displayed the players' unified tone and unswerving rhythmic balance.  Also outstanding (Vol. 1) is a brilliantly rendered "Serenata Notturna," Mozart's vigorous serenade for string orchestra undergirded by timpani, played by festival co-director Wu Han, normally a pianist of the first rank.

In the latter capacity, she is heard in the refreshing Piano Quintet No. 1 in C minor by Erno Dohnanyi, on a disc (Vol. 7) that also includes Leos Janacek's bracing Concertino for piano (Pohjonen again) and a six-piece ensemble of strings and winds.

There are some strongly characterized solos and duos among the nine discs, especially a zesty bunch of the 44 Duos for Two Violins (Vol. 8), played by Jorja Fleezanis and Alexander Sitkovetsky, and Martinu's Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola (Vol. 2), handsomely interpreted by Erin Keefe and Neubauer.

Along the way are several outstanding string-quartet and -sextet performances: for example, Dvorak's No. 10 in E-flat major by the Escher String Quartet (Vol. 2) and the Danish String Quartet's double representation on Vol. 8. There's an illuminating account of Haydn's infinitely rich String Quartet in G, op. 77, and a wonder-working performance of Beethoven's ever-mysterious "Harp" Quartet (No. 10 in E-flat major, op. 74). 

The whole series is an impressive document of a major American summer music festival. It's fortunate that performances of this caliber are being made widely available in such an attractive format.