Baroque to Modern, Music@Menlo Festival Disc Has It All

Music@Menlo Live: The Unfolding of Music II, 1-5. Various artists, incl.: Escher String Quartet; Jorja Fleezanis, Ian Swensen, violin; Paul Neubauer, Angela Choong, Youming Chen, viola; David Finckel, Laurence Lesser, Yuan Zhang, Andrés Diaz, cello. (


The latest five-disc set from Northern California's Music@Menlo festival, curated by the husband-and-wife team of cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, features terrific playing all the way through a survey of chamber music from the early Baroque to about five minutes ago. The 2008 festival examined what it called "the unfolding of music" through the centuries, initially focusing on pre-Romantic music on modern instruments, then proceeding chronologically to the final concert, which showcased scores written during the past two decades. Each CD, however, retraces the festival's progress in microcosm, beginning with a Baroque piece and ending with something more or less contemporary.

There's a bright and light Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, and a tight, sprightly, mainstream performance of a Corelli concerto grosso. But the 18th-century works played by the Escher String Quartet—Adam Barnett-Hart and Wu Jie, violins; Pierre Lapointe, viola; and Andrew Janss, cello—receive remarkably romanticized performances, which in a way negates the concept of musical change or "unfolding" over time. Yet the results are nonetheless fascinating, particularly the Escher way with Haydn's "Sunrise" quartet, played with remarkable bar-to-bar detail and plenty of wit. In contrast, the Haydn E minor trio performed by Derek Han, Jorja Fleezanis, and Laurence Lesser is more plainspoken and well behaved.

The Romantic era is represented strikingly here by a mostly extroverted performance of the Schubert Octet (although the woodwinds are sometimes a bit reserved), a mercurial Escher treatment of Wolff's Italian Serenade, a mellow reading of the Brahms Horn Trio, a gracious account of Dvo?ák's Terzetto for strings, and an exceptionally warm and lyrical version of Schumann's Piano Quintet.

The 20th century creeps in with modest portions of Stravinsky (his acerbic and rarely heard Three Pieces for String Quartet, again featuring the Eschers), Prokofiev ( Overture on Hebrew Themes), Shostakovich (two pieces for string octet), and Britten (Phantasy for oboe and strings), plus a beguiling novelty: Louis Gruenberg's Four Diversions for String Quartet, a simultaneously playful and slightly tense work where Martin? meets Gershwin.

The set's greatest importance lies in the three more recent works it features, although one of them, Tan Dun's Elegy: Snow in June is not entirely rewarding as cellist Andrés Díaz plays meditative lines through 25 minutes of attention-deficit percussion consternation (the work honors the memory of the Tiananmen Square victims). More rewarding are selections from Gabriela Lena Frank's song cycle in progress, "Songs of Cifar and the Sweet Sea" (featuring baritone Robert Gardner and pianist Anna Polonsky), and the world premiere of Kenneth Frazelle's Piano Trio—its three movements aren't well differentiated and the musical argument, while given in accessible terms, is not entirely focused, but violinist Joseph Swensen, cellist Finckel, and pianist Jeffrey Kahane make a compelling case for it.

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