The final week of this summer’s Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival included a resplendent and thrilling performance of Beethoven’s Ghost Trio (Op. 70, No. 1), played by violinist Martin Beaver, cellist Eric Kim, and pianist Shai Wosner on Aug. 19. A rendition can be resplendent without being thrilling, or thrilling without being resplendent, but this was both. The players burst out of the starting gate at full throttle and never let the energy flag as they dashed through the first movement. That is not to imply that they simply played loud and fast. The opening tempo is indicated as Allegro vivace e con brio (fast, lively, and vigorous) and the first phrase is marked fortissimo (very loud), but by the seventh measure the music has careered into dolce (sweet) and piano (soft), and at one point it even reaches pianississimo (very, very soft). The musicians attended to all of these indications, yielding an interpretation that reached across a very full dynamic range, boasted concomitant responsiveness to Beethoven’s details of articulation, and maintained at every turn a sense of driving momentum and expectation.
The second movement, which we discussed in these pages last week, gave rise to the piece’s nickname, since it may or may not have some connection to a ghost in Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Macbeth. Here, the performance was spellbinding. You could have heard a pin drop. A silent audience is a sure indicator that the musicians have earned their attention. It would be especially easy for listeners’ minds to wander during such an oft-heard piece; yet the music’s shivering contours and weird harmonies seemed fresh and original, its mystery alien. The piece’s finale can easily come across as mostly an excuse to end, an afterthought following such distinctive opening movements; but here the performers imprinted it with a clearly defined character that combined scherzo and bravado into a satisfying conclusion.
Beaver, Kim, and Wosner are not a self-standing, ongoing ensemble, but their performance exceeded what one usually hears when individual players happen to intersect on a given concert night at the festival. Obviously, they had spent time practicing together, thinking seriously about this piece and working out possibilities. But we also have underlying musicianship to thank. Beaver, who spent 11 years as first violinist of the since-disbanded Tokyo String Quartet, is a master of an ingrained “chamber music approach.” His tone was glossy, sweet, and relatively small-scaled. Only on rare occasions did he choose to push his sound toward anything suggesting stridency or grittiness, and then only to make particular dramatic points. Kim, who appears every summer in a variety of groupings, also has the gift of blending in — an essential skill for a chamber-music cellist — but he can also sing out with impressive richness if the context requires it. Wosner, too, displays breadth as an interpreter. He showed a soloist’s forwardness when appropriate, but he also adapted comfortably to the ideals of ensemble-playing, minimizing the gaps inherent in how sounds are created on the piano as compared to on bowed strings, discreetly adding to the momentum through niceties of rhythmic shading. It goes without saying that all three possess techniques of the first order.
It was instructive to compare the performance of the Ghost Trio with that of Brahms’ C-minor Piano Trio (Op. 101), which closed the festival on Aug. 20. Again, Wosner and Kim contributed top-drawer work, but the violin stand was occupied by Jennifer Frautschi. Though an accomplished violinist, most impressive in the slow movement, she did not contribute to a unified sound in the way that Beaver had and she showed less concern in general about meshing in so confidential a way with the other parts. Ultimately, it comes down to minutiae; but in classical music — and especially in chamber music — that is the name of the game.
Wosner also distinguished himself as a soloist in his noon recital on Aug. 15. He has consistently shown imagination in programming during his repeat visits to the festival. In this recital, he intermingled two of Frederic Rzewski’s Nanosonatas (both from 2008) with three sonatas by the 18th-century composer Domenico Scarlatti — playing the whole set without a break. We encountered Rzewski’s music earlier this summer when Ran Dank gave a gangbusters performance of his hourlong 36 Variations on “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” Wosner delved into the opposite end of the spectrum; the Nanosonatas, of which Rzewski has now produced more than 50, are miniatures, each just a couple of minutes long — essentially modern equivalents to Scarlatti’s sonatas. Wosner infused Nanosonata No. 36 with delicacy (punctuated with restrained outbursts) and No. 38 with tip-toeing mystery and flitting, desultory gestures. They interlocked elegantly with the Scarlatti sonatas, played with a full range of pianistic possibilities. Wosner rendered the last of the Scarlatti pieces (in A minor, K. 175) at jaw-dropping velocity without losing an iota of clarity.
All of this seemed only a prelude to the principal work on the program, Schubert’s towering Sonata in A major (D. 959). The piece can sometimes seem overlong, but Wosner paced it persuasively, setting off its paragraphs distinctly. His touch in the descending scales of the third movement seemed to connect to the Scarlatti figuration that had come before, and his delivery of the gracious fourth-movement variations put the cap on what qualified as an outstanding performance. The most astonishing part of this sonata, however, is its second movement, which seems to be going along all right until its melancholy disintegrates into a panic attack — a terrifying passage that runs its extended, unpredictable course before somehow being brought back into the world of musical logic. Listening four days later to Beethoven’s Ghost Trio, I had to wonder if the untethered aspect of the Trio’s second movement had provided some inspiration for this bit of Schubert, written nearly two decades later, in 1828 — the year after Beethoven passed away and when Schubert was taking his own final steps toward death’s door.
The other most remarkable performances from the festival’s end predictably came from the Dover Quartet. At their noon recital on Aug. 16, they offered a fine interpretation of Haydn’s Quartet in F minor (Op. 20, No. 5). I have never heard the group display less than superb technique. Here, one was again struck by the players’ unanimity of tone, blend, and vibrato, with viola and cello working in perfect tandem during their highlighted passages in the first movement and the two violins sounding like the same instrument throughout. Dominating the group’s program was Alexander Zemlinsky’s String Quartet No. 2, composed from 1913 through 1915. I have never much cared for this piece, a 40-minute exercise in hyperventilation and self-conscious misery, its episodes not really fusing into a coherent whole. I knew it from recordings, but I did prefer it in this live performance, which was unimpeachable in its musical standards, even if Mahleresque shrieks may not underscore what sets the Dovers apart from the crowd. Zemlinsky apparently founded the piece on a programmatic narrative that he never revealed but that involved various of his angst-ridden Viennese friends and acquaintances — for example, the painter Richard Gerstl, who, following an affair with Arnold Schoenberg’s wife, created a series of self-portraits that manifested escalating disquiet, destroyed all the artworks in his studio, stabbed himself in the chest, and then hanged himself before the mirror he had used when painting his self-portraits. Zemlinsky’s Second String Quartet either is your cup of tea or isn’t.
The Dovers still had two fine performances to go before the festival’s end. The final concert (Aug. 20) opened with their delightful rendition of Beethoven’s Quartet in B-flat major (Op. 18, No. 6). They were already ticking by the time they played its opening measures with sprightly gusto, and they turned on a dime to inject just a touch of wistfulness into the second theme. Impressive indeed was their performance of Dvořák’s String Quintet in E-flat major (Op. 97) on the preceding evening, with Hsin-Yun Huang assisting as the well-matched second viola. Notwithstanding passages of occasional moodiness, this was on the whole an ebullient reading, the second movement suggesting a hoe-down with counterpoint. In the third movement, a set of variations, the group made something very special of Variation Four, where the cello sang out soulfully with wide vibrato against the haunted, rustling tremolos of the other instruments. Not less affecting was that movement’s conclusion, where hymnic rapture suggested a waning sunset, beautiful yet tinged with the slightest regret. ◀