Music@Menlo 2018's Creative Capitals

One of my great musical regrets in leaving the Bay Area for the Pacific Northwest is our far greater distance from Music@Menlo's extraordinary summer chamber music festival. One of the finest chamber music festivals in the United States, some of whose concerts are held in the extraordinary acoustic of the Menlo School's Stent Family Hall in Menlo Park, CA, Music@Menlo is guided by America's "Power Couple of Chamber Music," ex-Emerson String Quartet cellist David Finckel and his wife, pianist Wu Han. Given that this duo also directs the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (from which they draw a number of their artists), Chamber Music Today in South Korea, and more, and perform all over the world in both solo and duo capacities, their ability to assemble ad hoc ensembles of superb chamber musicians is virtually without rival.

Last summer, Music@Menlo devoted its season to a series of Creative Capitals programs. Through concerts, lectures, and more, the festival surveyed the diversity of Western chamber music that was birthed in Europe's "most flourishing" historic creative capitals—London, Paris, St. Petersburg, Leipzig, Berlin, Budapest, and Vienna.

You can hear the sum of Music@Menlo's accomplishments in the multi-CD sets of the their annual festivals, most of which are also available for streaming in Red-Book quality on Tidal. Each physical box set comes complete with expertly written liner notes. Even they, however, as in the case of Shostakovich's song cycle, From Jewish Poetry, Op.79, which can be heard on the seventh CD of 2018's 8-CD Creative Capitals set, sometimes lack English translations. While Music@Menlo's Grammy-winning producer and engineer, Da-Hong Seetoo, has finally begun recording the festival in 24/96—I've auditioned some of the 2018 hi-rez files, and their extra depth and spaciousness are distinct plusses—the hi-rez versions are not available commercially, at least for now.

Regardless, the majority of recordings and performances are wonderful. Take the above-mentioned Shostakovich cycle, for example, which Shostakovich dare not release for performance until after the death of Stalin. With piano accompaniment by Gilbert Kalish, who achieved fame for his performing partnership with Dawn Upshaw and the late mezzo-soprano, Jan DeGaetani, Music@Menlo recruited a wonderfully strong and beautifully voiced soprano, Lyubov Petrova, rich contralto Sara Couden (whose voice blends perfectly with Petrova's), and lovely-voiced tenor Kang Wang. While the tenor lacks the bite, vehemence, and ironic snarl required for his songs, the two women along with Kalish can hold their own with the best of them. They also have more pleasing voices than some harsher voiced Russian female soloists of the recent past.

In Creative Capitals, Shostakovich's music also surfaces in the West Coast premiere of his evocative short Impromptu for Viola and Piano, Op.33. Sensitively played by Paul Neubauer and Wu Han, who gave the world premiere of the work at the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Festival before bringing it to the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg, it's another of the set's many gems.

More of those gems can be found on Disc 5, where the Calidore String Quartet performs selections from Bach's Musical Offering, BWV1079; Mozart's String Quartet in D, K.575, Prussian, and Bartok's String Quartet No.5. I've wanted to hear the Calidores ever since they released their recital, Resilience, on the Signum label last fall. The Calidores' Mozart immediately earned my respect. As soon as I heard the first bars of this quartet, written during trying times, I began to realize how much I've been missing listening to Mozart's chamber music masterpieces. I doubt that many music lovers will fail to respond to the unceasing grace with which the Calidores embrace the quartet's second movement Andante, and the beauty with which they present elements of the theme that Mozart used in his song, "Das Veilchen" (The Violet).

For an absolute change of pace, don't miss the Calidore's treatment of Bartók's alternately spikey, provocative, romantic, and occasionally jovial String Quartet No.5. Here's the third movement Scherzo, whose sonic goulash says it all:

There is, of course, a lot of traditional fare here. Da-Hong Seetoo does a fine job capturing the warm heart of Kalish's piano in Brahms's Piano Quintet in f, Op.34, which shares disc 4 with Beethoven's Cello Sonata in F, Op.5, No.1. There have been more romantically indulgent interpretations of the Brahms, to be sure—I wouldn't miss the 1971 recording of 84-year old Artur Rubinstein with the Guarneris, for example, nor the famed 1938 recording of Rudolf Serkin with the Busch String Quartet—but there is much to admire here. The artists, including violinist Kristin Lee, are superb, and some of their soft playing is magical.

Yes, there are any number of other fine modern chamber music compilations available, least of which are the Lugano Festival recordings from Martha Argerich and friends. But for breadth and depth of repertoire, and a large number of absolute gems, the Music@Menlo Live sets, and Creative Capitals in particular, deserve your attention.