More than usual interest was attached to the concert of the Montrose Trio, which made its first appearance at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in St. Francis Auditorium on July 23. The group — a standard assemblage of violin, cello, and piano — was established last year following the 2013 disbanding of the Tokyo String Quartet. Violinist Martin Beaver (a Canadian) and cellist Clive Greensmith (a Briton) worked together as the non-Japanese contingent during the last 11 years of that group’s history, and they were obviously reluctant to put their collaboration in the past. Pianist Jon Kimura Parker had often teamed up with the Tokyo Quartet, and it was logical for Beaver and Greensmith to join forces with him for a new enterprise. After their long tenure with the Tokyo foursome, the string players must have felt they had pretty thoroughly digested the string-quartet repertoire. It made good sense that they should angle off in a different direction, drawing on the same chamber music skills that have served them so capably, but now putting them to use for music they could approach with a degree of freshness.

Their Santa Fe recital opened with Turina’s Trio No. 2, a compact piece from 1933. This charming confection stands with one foot in the Parisian salon and the other on a beach in Iberia, suggesting in turn the sophisticated lilt of Fauré and the cheerful españolismo of Sorolla’s seascapes. Ravel comes to mind in both the 5/8 Basque-country meter of the slow movement and a woozy passage that seems to check out the perspective from underwater for a brief while in the finale. An emphatic misplaced attack in the first movement’s final cadence was a good example of the maxim “If you’re going to make a mistake, make it with authority and don’t let on to the audience.” 

From this little-played piece, the Montrose Trio moved to a much-visited one, Beethoven’s Trio in E-flat major (Op. 1, No. 1), the trailhead of the composer’s published oeuvre. Again, the group created excitement through infusions of color, illuminating phrases with lightly varying timbres and balances. The musicians’ overall approach showed appropriate classical restraint, although they did indulge in a bit of comical braying in the Trio of the Scherzo movement. One appreciated the elegant pianistic touch — the sense of carefully calibrated weight on the keys — that enriched the overall flavor without ever seeming fussy. The same could be said of the group’s performance of Brahms’ B-major Trio, one of chamber music’s most indispensable works. These musicians knew the right questions to ask, and then they worked out their answers with care. One might have preferred a bit more of Halloween in the scurrying of the second movement, but the group’s more serious approach proved an entirely viable option. The voicing of the piano’s hymnlike expanse at the beginning of the third movement could not have been bettered, coming across as sincere but not smarmy, again displaying the vigilant voicing that is going to be one of this ensemble’s hallmarks. The members of the Montrose Trio hit the deck running, bringing with them an impressive wealth of individual talent and corporate experience in chamber music. They took their name in honor of Château Montrose, a distinguished winery in Saint-Estèphe that holds the rank of Second Growth (Deuxième Cru), which is mighty fine indeed. Already it seems that this new musical ensemble has not overreached in selecting its name. Its future looks promising indeed.

Pianist Parker presented a solo recital two days earlier, in the festival’s noontime series. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy were aptly coupled, the pensive opening movement of the Beethoven seeming here to prefigure the quirky harmonic ideas that would resurface in the Schubert. It was nonetheless not Parker’s very finest hour. Most of his playing was solid and much of it was atmospheric, but his fingers kept getting twisted up, enforcing momentary breaks in the momentum of the Moonlight’s ferocious finale and flustering him enough to be noticeable at several points in the Wanderer. After regrouping, however, he returned to deliver a dazzling rendition of the Wizard of Oz Fantasy  by his composer-friend William Hirtz. Drawing on themes by Harold Arlen (mostly) and Herbert Stothart from the classic movie, Hirtz wrote this showpiece for piano four-hands and later rearranged it for solo piano at Parker’s request. The writing was dense indeed, recalling the concert paraphrases of, say, Leopold Godowsky, who could hardly bear to leave any finger unemployed for more than a nanosecond. If I had heard this piece without also seeing it, it would not have occurred to me that it was all being handled by a single player. Parker led listeners with extravagant panache over the rainbow and down the yellow brick road before arriving at the final ding-dong, leaving a dead witch in his wake.

But a fascinating encore remained. Parker explained that he was a devoted aficionado of the late Oscar Peterson (his fellow Canadian pianist), that he kept in touch with Peterson’s widow, and that she had just recently sent him a transcription someone had made of a piece Peterson had recorded but never written down, a “Blues Etude.” What a find! It is a short piece, a high-speed moto perpetuo only four minutes long. Figuration leaps from the page with the sparkle of jets of water in a Ravelian fountain. Blues informs the language, but so does boogie-woogie. You might call it bluesie-woogie. Calculated in notes per second, it probably equaled what Parker had just dispensed in the Wizard of Oz Fantasy, and it may have even exceeded it.

On July 26 and 27 (I heard the latter), violinist Beaver and celist Greensmith (of the Montrose Trio) joined up with violinist Benjamin Beilman, violist Lily Francis, and pianist Kirill Gerstein for a febrile interpretation of Franck’s Piano Quintet. The work is constructed using the cyclic structure of which Franck and his followers were fond, and what it gives up in literal recurrence of material is repaid through obsessive forward thrust. The players plumbed its superbly plotted drama, underscoring its ebbs and flows to highlight its drama. Gerstein was more unbridled than the strings, in the long run, but there was much to love in his contribution, especially in the demonic third movement, where he dispatched Mephistophelean, Lisztian galumphing with abandon.

The program opened with Haydn’s “Fifths” Quartet (Op. 76, No. 2), played by the Miró Quartet, which did not do it great honor. Haydn string quartets are “exposed” pieces that magnify shortcomings rather than veil them in tonal luxury. The musicians knew all the notes, obviously, but their reading lacked the refinements that mark top-flight quartet-playing, details involving the balance of tone and vibrato, for example, or precisely sculpted matching of phrasing. Intonation was almost always iffy. It did not usually involve the near-quarter-tones that infected the 16th-note ripples at the end of the first-movement exposition (both times around), but one never felt true security in the tuning; and that, by extension, rendered the players unable to generate emotive effect from departing minutely from the tuning norm. Intonation is a relative thing, to be sure, but it can serve as a potent arrow in a quartet’s quiver. More beauty resides in this piece than the Miró’s roughshod rendition suggested.

 One heard the difference when, after intermission, the same group performed Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet, along with clarinetist Todd Levy. The richer harmonies and textures are more forgiving than Haydn’s, but Levy also seemed to be leading a detailed interpretation, perhaps inspiring the other performers to pay attention in a way they had not when left to their own devices. His clarinet-playing emphasized good taste, kept closely in check, although allowing a pleasing rambunctiousness in the Maygar interlude in the slow movement. The greater part of that Adagio, however, is given over to a sustained hush, conveyed with forested, moss-enshrouded mystery. There the strings install mutes, and it seemed as if the timbral restriction this imposed forced the Miró musicians to focus more acutely on fundamental details in their playing. What resulted was a purity not heard elsewhere in their performances that evening. ◀

The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival continues through Aug. 24. Tickets are available through Tickets Santa Fe at the Lensic (505-988-1234, www.ticketssantafe.org) and by visiting www.santafechambermusic.com. 

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