Hamelin Tops Marquee Twofold At Music Fest As Pianist, Composer

Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin collaborated with stellar colleagues in a performance of his Piano Quintet at the Seattle Chamber Music Society Summer Festival. (Photos by Jenna Poppe)

SEATTLE — Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin, performing in his own Piano Quintet, headlined the July 13 evening concert of the Seattle Chamber Music Society Summer Festival. Held in Nordstrom Recital Hall, the concert also brought delight to a full house with stellar performances of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 5 for Violin and Piano (Spring), Op. 24, and Brahms’ equally beloved String Sextet No. 2 in G major, Op. 36.

Hamelin, who offered no program notes beyond listing the movements of the quintet he premiered with the Pacifica Quartet in 2017, was in superb form. The most challenging arpeggios and runs flowed from his fingers like clear water in a mountain stream. Exactly what he was trying to say in the quintet as whole may have been less than clear to this listener, but the music’s frequently provocative shifts were consistently engaging. Hamelin was joined by violinists Jun Iwasaki and Stephen Rose, violist Che-Yen Chen, and cellist Edward Arron.

The first movement (Moto perpetuo; interrotto) abounded in lovely, surging post-Romantic lyrical passages that rose and fell like waves until they were interrupted by strange, dissonant passages that projected a clashing of centuries and idioms. The movement ended on a beautiful and lyrical note. The second movement (Passacaglia) began dark, grave, discordant, and mournful. At one point, it built to a fevered, emphatic pitch before subsiding into mournful lyricism. The third movement (Intermezzo) opened with bird-like chirps before assuming a rambling pace that invoked images of a distinctly 21st -century jog through less than even countryside. The music eventually stuttered to an enigmatic halt before the last movement Rondo began with some of the quintet’s most rousing passages. Its initially rapid forward movement, occasional tentative steps, whirling repetitive patterns, strange slow-downs, and rousing albeit consternation-laden finale left me eager to hear it again when it becomes available for streaming on Virtual Concert Hall.

In the hands of violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti and pianist Boris Giltburg, the evening began with the unmitigated joy of Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata. Moretti’s tone was perfect for the music, her playing clear, precise, and inherently musical in the most complex passages. Giltburg seemed the perfect partner. The Adagio was ideally paced and beautifully poised, the Scherzo precise, and the final Rondo marvelously spirited and filled with color.

Violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti and pianist Boris Giltburg played Beethoven’s ‘Spring’ Sonata.

At the start of the evening, SCMS artistic director James Ehnes announced that Brahms’ second sextet would be recorded for future release and requested that audience members please refrain from chatter and unnecessary noise between movements. While that didn’t silence everyone, it certainly indicated that the performance would be anything but a routine read-through.

Ehnes must have chosen his fellow musicians — Alexander Kerr, violin; Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt and Matthew Lipman, violas; Robert deMaine and Brant Taylor, cellos — for the warmth of their playing because heart, harmony, and melodious good cheer were the focal point of the first movement. Ehnes played with rare delicacy in the opening phrases, and the warm and beautiful tone of deMaine’s cello proved an equal standout. As the musicians passed melodies back and forth with perfection, they sank deeper into the sheer glory of their collective sound. Pajaro-van de Stadt’s exceptionally warm tone provided additional pleasure, and dynamic gradations were ideally gauged.

Ehnes and Kerr’s superb blend in their duet passages highlighted a second-movement Presto whose spirited close provided additional delights. As the third movement unfolded, I was hard pressed to think of another performance or recording that touched me so deeply. The music grew even more gentle and moving with each bar. The final movement, highlighted by Ehnes’ expressive lower range, thrilled with its energy. The CD and high-resoluton stream, which will pair the sextet with the Brahms G minor Piano Quartet (with Ehnes, Arron, Che-Yen Chen, and pianist Orion Weiss), could garner abundant accolades when it’s released in late 2024.