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Four Score; Four quartets hone Chamber Music Festival’s creative focus

Inon Barnatan
Santa Fe Reporter

By John Stege

Among the 35 or so programs the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival mounts this summer, we’d have to count four quartets. Nope, not Tom Stearns Eliot’s wartime sequence. We’re talking four string quartet ensembles. The exemplary Shanghai Quartet was on deck in week one; in week two, the Johannes Quartet and the Calder Quartet impressed; yet to come: the Orion Quartet.

For a significant stud book, look no further than the Johannes Quartet. Their mentors: the late, great Guarneri Quartet, whose own progenitors were the legendary Budapest Quartet. At the festival’s July 26 noon concert at St. Francis Auditorium, the Johannes program included Webern’s Five Movements, Op. 5 (1909) and Janácek’s Second Quartet, “Intimate Letters,” (1928) both in fine, fluent performances.

The Webern could take as its motto multum in parvo, or “much in little.” Barely 10 minutes long, atonal, absolutely original, it’s a marvel of both compression and expression. The Johannes breathed life into what could be an arid, intellectual exercise in the hands of less skilled performers. The opening movement contained elements of bold lyricism; the finale, fragmentary and halting, tapered into an end-of-the-world whisper.

Equally persuasive, their account of the Janácek quartet teemed with vitality. This quartet, completed in the last year of his life, reflects the composer’s infatuation with Kamila Stösslová, who’d inspired many of his mature works. Over the course of their 21-year relationship, platonic if impassioned on his side, unrequited if somewhat puzzled on hers, Janácek wrote Kamila more than 700 letters, many of those in the last two years of his life.

The quartet is dizzyingly complex, a tonal reflection of the composer’s “intimate” if, to an extent, imaginary and often contradictory connection with the woman he loved. Like the letters, Janácek’s music displays agonizing mood swings, a psychology determined by abrupt dynamic shifts, violent crescendos, sudden interruptions and broken rhythmic patterns. For all the exhausting melodramatics, the work concludes with a limpid lyricism that members of the Johannes conveyed with simplicity and grace.

Gracefulness and conviction also marked the July 30 afternoon concert at St. Francis Auditorium, a recital by the gifted Israeli-born, New York-based pianist Inon Barnatan. His carefully arranged program moved from Bach (the Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major), to five Scarlatti sonatas, to Sebastian Currier’s 1997 “Scarlatti Cadences,” to two works by Mendelssohn, the E Minor Prelude and Fugue and the E Major Rondo Capriccioso.

For the first part of this joy-filled concert, I felt the presence of the incomparable Hungarian pianist Dinu Lipatti, whose death at age 33 in 1950 ended a brief career of immense distinction. Barnatan plays Bach with similar nobility. He sounds out the partita’s inner voices clearly, elegantly. The sarabande in particular was a model of control and tonal balance, and the quick movements flicked along with engaging lightness. Those technically astounding Scarlatti pieces combined virtuosity with deft wit. And Currier’s ghostly sonatina, a fragmentary reflection upon Scarlatti, recalled Kurtág’s Schumann hommage.

Virtuosity of another sort concluded the regular program: Mendelssohn’s Bach tribute, the prelude and fugue, terminates in a quasi-fantasia on a chorale tune in the grand Romantic manner. The Rondo Capriccioso, likewise, provides a showcase for pianistic brilliance. Barnatan gave both works a vital, triumphant reading.

The Myra Hess transcription of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” an encore, concluded Barnatan’s thoughtful, balanced concert. I flashbacked twice, once to Dame Myra’s traditional encore of the Bach in a long-ago Boston recital, and then to the recording of Lipatti’s final concert, a performance that also opened with the Bach partita and ended with the Hess transcription. So, Mr. Barnatan, thanks for the engaging program. And the memories.