“Well. I think they must have just about run out of Schumann.” And so went an overheard comment at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival’s Aug. 15 evening concert. The occasion? Number three of four concerts billed as “Years of Wonder,” each featuring Gesualdo madrigals, Mozart piano trios and, need you ask, chamber works by Robert Schumann.
In the course of four evening concerts plus one noon program, SFCMF would let us hear all three of Schumann’s string quartets, his piano quartet and quintet (and for good measure, five of Mozart’s six piano trios). The Op. 41 string quartets—I heard numbers 1 and 3—arrived courtesy of SFCMF stalwarts the Orion Quartet, making their much-beloved annual migration to Santa Fe. They’ve been on hand every season since 1993, two summers excepted, and frankly, the SFCMF would scarcely be the SFCMF without these guys.
I’ve been following their personnel—the brothers Phillips (violinists Daniel and Todd) plus los compadres Timothy Eddy, cellist, and violist Steven Tenenbom—in one form or another ever since Daniel, a mere stripling, turned up at the first Spoleto USA fest in 1977. The quartet took shape 10 years later and eventually, happily, here they all landed.
Schumann’s first quartet, heard Aug. 12, showed the Orions at their gleaming best, only surpassed three nights later by a spellbinding account of the semi-scrutable third quartet. Tender and demonic by turns, their nuanced reading captured the spirit of inspired craziness that the piece exudes. That wild-and-wooly rondo-finale, horsehairs a’flying, just about tore the roof off the Lensic.
About a quarter of the 21 madrigals from Gesualdo’s Fifth Book of Madrigals, published in 1611, opened each of the four themed programs. Notoriously chromatic, famous for unheard-of harmonic audacity and exceedingly difficult in performance, they were undertaken by a dozen members of the Desert Chorale, conducted by Joshua Habermann and assisted by Richard Savino’s archlute.
Scholarship shows that five-voiced Italian madrigals of that period were to be sung, one to a part, by five singers with perfect intonation, perfect balance among the parts, perfect diction and profound sensitivity to the text. Perfect pitch would help, too. Imagine a polyphonic quintet version of the Orions playing poetry on their strings.
The SFCMF’s valiant version of Gesualdo did little of the above. Employing 12 earnest young singers, instead of five, muddied the textures, played havoc with balance and either diminished or exaggerated the presentation of Gesualdo’s hyper-mannerist, oxymoronic texts.
The three Mozart piano trios I heard, K. 496, K. 542 and K. 548, featured pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, violinist Ida Kavafian and cellist Peter Wiley. Often, just as in Haydn’s trios, these come across as piano sonatas with violin and cello accompaniment. Genial and gallant always, at times tenderly emotional, they more often charm than impress. Performances tended to the uneven, what with a self-conscious piano and an uncertain violin.
Earlier on Aug. 15, a noon program featured Garrick Ohlsson, deemed this summer’s artist-in-residence, in a varied program. Chopin appeared of course, in the large-scale, big-screen Ohlsson manner: for the nacreous Barcarolle in F-sharp, Op. 60, he transformed the Steinway into a glistening gondola, himself toiling at the oar. In the improvisational Fantasy in f, Op. 49, he simply channeled the composer. The Mazurka No.32 in c-sharp, Op. 50, No.3, flashed with authority. Three impressionist sketches by Charles Tomlinson Griffes followed, notably “The White Peacock,” whose languid arpeggios evoked a dream-struck vision.
Ohlsson had premiered Michael Hersch’s first Piano Concerto (2002), and now we heard the premiere of that composer’s “Tenebrae” (2010). The eight-minute work, a profoundly personal response to the death of an intimate friend, begins as a dense, shadowy dirge. It grows in anguish to an enraged climax before concluding on a note of unresolved emptiness. Ohlsson’s passionate reading made a strong case for this grief-stricken piece.
Ohlsson concluded with Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz, No. 1. That Steinway will never be the same.