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Musicians from Marlboro 2006, Part I

Musicians from MarlboroThe Musicians from Marlboro stopovers at the Freer/Sackler Gallery of Art are always worth the trip to the National Mall – and this year’s first in a series of three such concerts was no exception. A varied program meant delights for everyone in the audience, even if not everything on one such evening can be of equal caliber. Ludwig van Beethoven’s Scottish (and Welsh, and Irish) folk song transcriptions (for Piano Trio and mezzo soprano) are rarely heard and delightful in direct proportion to that scarcity – if perhaps not quite as much as those of Joseph Haydn, who was also commissioned to do hundreds of these settings for prominent Scottish publishers.

The Scottish melodies and harmonic turns are immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with them; the Welsh settings (“The Old Strain” and “O let the Night my Blushes Hide”) sound rather similar to them and only the Irish ones (“Dermot & Shelah” and “Come Draw we Round a Cheerful Ring”) differ significantly in tone and character. Beethoven manages to make the Piano Trio accompaniment occasionally appear more virtuosic in the strings than is the case with Haydn, but also less integral to the songs themselves. A few touches reveal greater ambition than was room for in the assignments – but the six selections presented also had a less pleasing and less warm touch than those of his older colleague. The routine of a bored composer blinked through every so often.

Ms. Tamara Mumford’s mezzo voice presented itself as a well-centered, gorgeous instrument with a generous but controlled vibrato that shone, even if a Scottish inflection or Irish lilt and a generally more ‘folksy’ attitude might have added to the performance.

The four soloists that sat down for Bartók’s String Quartet no.4 allowed for something very special to emerge in the process of their performance. Sounding decidedly different than a well hone, seasoned professional string quartet would, here were four highly talented and musical individuals that came together in the process of playing. Intonation and cohesion were impeccable just the same – but the ad-hoc quality, that sense that four players sat down and spontaneously made this music was tangible… despite the obvious rehearsing time that must have gone into this presentation. The result was as exciting (and more) as Bartók always should be, performed live. Heavy shadows of Ravel and Debussy over the short fourth movement (Allegretto pizzicato) and energy to burn in the final Allegro molto that became ever more expansive as it was laid out before our ears.

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Marlboro Players' Satisfying Mix at the Freer (Washington Post, November 17)
Brahms’ Zwei Gesänge op.91 for piano, viola, and mezzo soprano were played by the lithe, porcelainesque Ieva Jokubaviciute, well remembered from a Chopin/Debussy/Field recital (in connection with a Whistler Nocturnes exhibit at the Freer/Sackler) a few years back, Eric Nowlin, who produced an astoundingly beautiful viola sound (and seemed well aware of it), and Ms. Mumford. Ms. Jokubaviciute, still prone to some odd contortions above the ivory, got as much out of the curiously unrewarding accompaniment for Gestillte Sehnsucht – and more still out of Geistliches Wiegenlied.

A Lied is not an opera aria. A lovely voice, good projection, and fine pronunciation (all present with Ms. Mumford) alone don’t make for good Lieder-singing: only a well-sounding display of impressive artistry. For one, the vibrato could have been reduced in both songs. In Brahms, there is no need to go for the sound of Erika Köth’s Adele. More emphasis on the words, not notes, would have been a good starting point, also. Given that even a singer like Fritz Wunderlich found the art of Lied-interpretation hard work and a skill that he hadn’t entirely mastered even at the time of his (untimely) death, this lack of proper expression in this young singer’s performance was neither surprising nor in any way indicative of her skill, talent, and (great) promise.

Amid heavy ‘signal-breathing’ and with the four-note cello indicator for “let’s make music” beautifully given by Marcy Rosen, the other string players, now with additional viola-support from Katie Kadarauch, got under way with Mozart’s String Quartet K.593. The balance of the work was tilted toward the violins where Yura Lee and Lily Francis both impressed – but in very different ways. Ms. Lee has a confident, athletic, brazen, and even strident tone – the kind that wins competitions. Her playing called Lev Chilingirian to mind: Very much a first violin. Lily Francis, just as agile and precise, offered a more filigrane sound… the kind that puts a smile on fellow musicians’ faces. The difference was charmingly observable during the melody-trading between the two instruments in the first violin. Quality music-making from everyone, again, even if the heights of the Bartók were not quite reached here.

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