Music@Menlo 6-CD Set Is a Delight for String Aficionados
Music@Menlo Live: Bridging the Ages. The Escher String Quartet, the Miami String Quartet: Philip Setzer, Joseph Swensen, Ian Swensen, Erin Keefe, violins; Roberto Diaz, Paul Neubauer, viola; David Finckel, Ralph Kirshbaum, Colin Carr, cellos; Daxun Zhang, bass; et al.
Music@Menlo—given annually on the San Francisco peninsula and co-directed by cellist David Finckel of the Emerson String Quartet and his wife, pianist Wu Han—is one of the finest summer chamber festivals in the land, and evidence arrives with six CDs drawn from the 2007 concerts. This festival's theme, and the recordings' title, was Bridging the Ages. It has to do with tributes and borrowings, but connections between the works as assembled on the CDs are not always apparent. Still, there's some superb music making here, no matter its organizing principle.
Much of the work will strongly appeal to string aficionados. In the standard repertory division, violinist Joseph Swensen and cellist Ralph Kirshbaum join forces with pianist and festival co-director Wu Han for a hyper-romantic and intense performance of Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio. The Escher String Quartet, a foursome barely out of the Manhattan School of Music, deploys immaculate technique and a burnished tone in a much cooler, but effective reading of Mendelssohn's Quartet No. 2. The Eschers also do themselves proud in an attractive Boccherini guitar quintet with Jason Vieaux and Bottesini's operatic Gran duo concertante with violinist Erin Keefe and bassist Daxun Zhang.
The Miami String Quartet is on hand for a pair of death-obsessed works: Bruce Adolphe's String Quartet No. 4, "Whispers of Mortality," concerns a dying man coming to terms with his demise. There's warmth to much of it, and occasional hints of Janácek. This pairs naturally with Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" Quartet, here given a performance that is both elegant and dynamic.
Other highlights: a thick and powerful performance of Brahms' Piano Quartet No. 1 (the one with the Gypsy rondo); a suave reading by Ian Swensen and Gilbert Kalish of Ravel's Violin Sonata; an alternately moody and ecstatic treatment of Korngold's Suite for Two Violins, Cello, and Piano (Left-Hand); and a wonderfully exuberant romp through Saint-SaÃ«ns' Carnival of the Animals.
There's much more as well.