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South Wales Argus
By Allan Ulrich
Silicon Valley’s contribution to the advancement of chamber music culture in northern California is evolving with flair in its eighth summer season. Thematic programming, hitherto hazily developed, is acquiring focus, while an increased concentration on the vocal repertoire is adding further lustre to proceedings.
This year, pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel, the festival’s founders, have arranged their main-stage concerts around the quest for national identity in music. “The English Voice” proved a game place to start; this profile of a culture awakening from a 200-year musical slumber was instructive. In his 1918 piano quintet, Elgar reluctantly bids farewell to the past and the spectre of Brahms, asserting an individual voice in an adagio that aches with nostalgia for what was. Here, a sensitive pianist, Inon Barnatan, and the bright Miró Quartet stated their case eloquently.
In contrast, Walton’s piano quartet, an effusion of the composer’s adolescence, traces a distinctive path through the English heritage, sampling the pastoral tradition before proposing self-consciously modern chordal episodes, veering into trendy jazz riffs and dabbling in modal writing. Precocity, however, has its limits and the aggressive performance (by Han, Finckel, violinist Ani Kavafian and violist Lily Francis) offered steely extroversion in lieu of formal coherence.
In this context, one might have wished for a more challenging Britten opus than A Charm of Lullabies, but these five strangely disquieting verse settings found an ideal interpreter in Sasha Cooke, who, with Barnatan’s able support, made a smashing festival debut. The young American mezzo-soprano revels in a rich, tawny tone and honours verbal as much as musical values. The concert world seems hers to command.
Less gratifying was a rendering of Schubert’s Winterreise by baritone Randall Scarlata and veteran pianist Gilbert Kalish, who curated this “Carte Blanche” concert. This most introspective of song cycles found Scarlata in healthy vocal estate but prone to forcing his instrument in the intimate hall, muting dynamic contrasts and blunting Schubert’s myriad moods. Kalish’s informed accompaniment did not serve the singer well.