Go ahead. Call the just-concluding season at the Santa Fe Opera the summer of the three (in alphabetical order!) divas: that would be Christine Brewer, Natalie Dessay and Patricia Racette. So why not call the just-concluded season at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival the summer of the three pianists?

For sure, that's a shocking reductio ad absurdum, but consider the evidence. Of the 35 or so concerts the festival delivered over the season, the most exciting for me were two piano recitals and another program featuring a 20-year-old pianist currently attending the Curtis Institute of Music.

Taking the three artists in order of seniority, the French-Canadian Marc-André Hamelin offered a dazzling program at the noon concert on Aug. 18.

Hamelin's international reputation stems largely from his devotion to rarely-performed works for the piano, from his insightful readings—both of these and of the canon's usual suspects—and from his startling virtuosity and technical finesse.
All of which were abundantly evident Aug. 18. Alban Berg's "Sonata, Op. 1" opened the program. This seminal 1908 work summarized and then said farewell to German high romanticism as Berg moved toward atonality. Hamelin emphasized the sonata's lyricism and tenderness while never neglecting the piece's grandly dramatic moments.

Claude Debussy's "Preludes, Book Two" followed. These dozen brief vignettes are partly about the end of a style, too—taking chromaticism about as far as it can go. Hamelin's reading of this demanding work penetrated each of its 12 highly splendorous, often eccentric moods. Beginning with the autumnal subtleties of "Brouillards," through the wry parody of "Général Lavine—eccentric" and the mortuary stillness of "Canope," concluding with the hyper-pyrotechnic flash of "Feux d'artifice," Hamelin simply stunned his audience.

Hamelin's technical facility always serves the music. This was the point of his final offering: Charles-Valentin Alkan's 1857 work, the quirky, barely playable "Symphony for Solo Piano." It's a summing-up and reinterpretation of the earlier romantic piano repertory, ranging from Franz Schubert to Felix Mendelssohn to Frédéric Chopin. Hamelin made "Symphony" sound better than it is, with thundering power and panache that reminded me of when Gina Bachauer's "Hammerklavier" busted a string on her Steinway many years ago.

I've already discussed the second of the three pianists in these pages. That's the young Israeli Inon Barnatan, whose remarkable July 30 performances of Thomas Adès, Maurice Ravel and Schubert gave rock-solid evidence of an artist already launched on a brilliant career.

The last of the SFCMF's keyboard trinity appeared at the Aug. 20 noon concert. Kuok-Wai Lio, currently studying with Gary Graffman, made a fine ensemble member in Igor Stravinsky's "Suite from L'histoire du soldat" and Gabriel Fauré's "Piano Quartet No. 1, Op. 15." But the program centered on Lio's performance of two works: Schubert's "Impromptu in F Minor, D. 935" and Sergei Rachmaninoff's arrangement of that swell Fritz Kreisler bibelot, "Liebesleid."

A friend had wondered how such a youthful artist could convey the depth and richness of the Schubert. Believe it, Lio could and did. His reading of this probing, multifaceted work was marked by lucid maturity and extraordinary unmannered refinement. The "Liebesleid," an insouciant salon showpiece, gave Lio a chance to demonstrate technical dexterity (lots of notes!) and more importantly, effervescent wit that transcended pianistic display. Watch this guy—he'll be back next season.

But now for an operatic footnote: I revisited two shows at the SFO last week. In an important cast change, La Traviata featured Anthony Michaels-Moore as the elder Germont. His warm-voiced, confident performance replaced the icy characterization that had prevailed opening night.

And—not exaggerating—the final Alceste provided as splendid a musical experience as the SFO has ever offered. The orchestra, chorus and tenor Paul Groves surpassed themselves. But the triumphant star of the evening was assured, radiant, magnificent Alceste herself: Christine Brewer.