Believe it: Summer's on the wane. The kids are back in school; cottonwood leaves are falling into the Acequia Madre; and when you read this, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival's 39th season will be history. Housed at the Lensic Performing Arts Center for its final week, SFCMF's wind-up programming included a clutch of trios (Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Haydn and Brahms), a collation of quintets (Neikrug, Brahms, Glazunov and Mozart) and an assortment of sonatas (Prokofiev, Brahms, Scriabin and Bartók).
Aug. 15's program opened on a cheerfully satanic note. The fiddle has long been called the devil's play-pretty—witness Tartini, Paganini, Stravinsky and their toying with that diabolic instrument. While the virtuosic Wieniawski D-Major Polonaise for Violin and Piano may not reek of brimstone, Giora Schmidt, accompanied by Shai Wosner, played the devil with it. With wild staccatos, frantic double-stopping, horsehairs a-flying, Schmidt fiddled like a creature possessed.
A major mood-change arrived with Marc Neikrug's Clarinet Quintet, featuring David Shifrin and the Orion Quartet. This recent, generally dissonant work bid a calculated farewell to conventional tonalities while quoting, implicitly, from familiar pre- and post-Mahler sources. The restless opening movement with the clarinet in constant, unnerving motion seemed a tense tribute to "Verklarte Nacht." After a dark viola/cello prelude, the Lento that followed suggested an indeterminate neo-Wagnerian ramble, with the Tristan chord dimly glimpsed.
After a brief, inconclusive Interlude, the final movement—again introduced by that brooding viola/cello duo—made its nervous progress through broken canonic imitations, broad unisons and excitable syncopations. Shifrin and colleagues provided a pungent exploration of the work's dark corridors.
Brahms' String Quintet No. 2 in G Major completed the program. The ensemble—violinists William Preucil and Benny Kim, violists Michael Tree and Steven Tenenbom, and cellist Eric Kim—offered a balanced, mature account of this late, famously autumnal work. The elegiac Adagio movement evoked Woolf's description of Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse: "Never did anybody look so sad." The subsequent valse triste never collapsed into sentimentality.
All six of Beethoven's piano trios, performed over two nights by violinist Ida Kavafian, cellist Peter Wiley and pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, made the week's biggest impression. I heard the first set of these on Aug. 17: Op. 1, Nos. 1 and 3; and Op. 70, No. 2. After the concert, I hastened to revisit some older, exalted performances of these works to verify what I had just heard at the Lensic. For subtlety of expression, for nuance and delicacy of balance, for freshness and vitality, this trio of artists provided practically unsurpassable readings.
On Aug. 19, the season's final noon concert brought pianist Cecile Licad back to Santa Fe for a high-powered hour of Scriabin and Chopin. For much of the recital, technique overwhelmed interpretation. Licad's disconcerting performance of Scriabin's two Op. 12 Impromptus (1895) opened the concert. Dynamic markings for the first of them, in F-sharp Major, range from ff to ppp. Ignoring these, Licad maintained a relentless bravura forte throughout both impromptus.
Pianists get into fistfights over interpretations of Scriabin's Sonata No. 5, Op. 53 (1907), the composer's earliest venture into atonality. Across the piano repertory, the piece's harmonic diversity and rhythmic complexity are virtually unmatched. Sviatoslav Richter even called it, along with Liszt's Mephisto Waltz, No. 1, "the most difficult work, period." Licad certainly didn't make it sound easy, and, although she was more careful about dynamics, this was largely a one-dimensional, broad-brush reading.
The concert concluded with Chopin's 12 Op. 25 Études. Clearly more at ease here, Licad offered a powerful performance. If short on poetry, it didn't lack for emphasis.