WORKS: Music@Menlo: works by Antheil, Barber, Beethoven, Bolcom, Brahms, Britten, Burleigh, Copland, F Couperin, Crumb, Debussy, Dvoπák, Elgar, Fauré, Gershwin, Grieg, Handel, Haydn, Milhaud, Mozart, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Ravel, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Turina, Vivaldi & Walton
PERFORMER: Sasha Cooke (soprano), Wu Han, Juho Pohjonen, Alessio Bax, Gilbert Kalish (piano), Jonathan Fischer, Todd Palmer (clarinet), Dennis Godburn (bassoon), Christopher Froh (percussion), Jorja Fleezanis, Erin Keefe, Arnaud Sussmann (violin), John Largess (viola), David Finckel, Laurence Lesser (cello), Scott Pingel (bass), Sasha Cooke (soprano); Jupiter String Quartet; Miró Quartet etc
CATALOGUE NO: Music@Menlo 2010
Breathe it in. There is something special about the atmosphere at chamber music festivals, and, as is clear from these 2010 performances, David Finckel and Wu Han’s Music@Menlo festival in the San Francisco Bay area is no exception. This is not exactly a box-set, for the slipcase is seemingly designed to ensure that a heap of eight jewel cases lands on your foot. Once discarded, it is possible to tuck in to a feast of enthusiastic music-making.
The first disc’s imaginative programme typifies much of what is to follow, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons being answered by Crumb’s Music for a Summer Evening. Although superficially worlds apart, it is striking how both works evoke the natural world and juxtapose stillness with sudden explosions of movement. If the inventive playing in the Vivaldi is tempered by a slightly foursquare approach to the more driven passages, a more compelling account of the Crumb is hard to imagine.
Another striking pairing is at the heart of the magnificent solo recital on the eighth disc. It is a neat idea of pianist Juho Pohjonen to place the source of the theme for Brahms Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel immediately before it. This becomes a masterstroke when Pohjonen segues straight from Handel’s Suite in B flat major into the Brahms. Moreover, Pohjonen has much to say. Conversely the less coherent fourth disc combines works by Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Schoenberg taken from separate concerts and in performances that fall short of gripping.
Several of the programmes explore national identities, the central discs acting like a musical Grand Tour, progressing from fine performances of Britten, Walton and Elgar to a vivacious exploration of the Vienna of Haydn, Beethoven and Beethoven. 1920s Paris provides the setting for the fifth disc, with the rare piano quintet version of Milhaud’s La création du monde setting the scene for an eclectic mix including Antheil, Copland, Fauré, Ravel and Poulenc, all given with a spirit of fun and adventure.
Like several others, the sixth disc reflects the way such festival documents combine instrumental groupings more fluidly than studio recordings. Any predictability in the pairing of Ravel and Debussy is upset by the latter’s String Quartet being joined by the former’s Piano Trio, with Turina’s suave La oración del torero acting as a bridge.
The seventh disc crosses the Atlantic, American Dvoπák framing some spirituals and Barber’s Four Songs, given with vitality and charm by soprano Sasha Cooke. The close miking of the recitals largely masks distractions such as a persistent coughing fit during Pohjonen’s Mozart, but gives a slightly hard edge and an occasionally artificial balance. What is absolutely clear, though, is that this is a festival with an infectious spirit. Christopher Dingle