PORT ANGELES, Wash. — One of the finest chamber-music concerts I’ve ever experienced took place not in a major metropolis but in Port Angeles, a city of fewer than 21,000 people. On Aug. 27, pianist Jeremy Denk, violinist James Garlick, violist Richard O’Neill (Tákacs String Quartet), and cellist Ani Aznavoorian gathered at one of the gateway cities to the Olympic National Forest for a concert of three great works by what Denk called the Schumann-Brahms “ménage à trois”: Clara Schumann’s Three Romances for Violin and Piano (1853), Robert Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70 (1849, in the arrangement for cello and piano), and Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quartet in A major, Op. 26 (1861).
The concert capped the two-weekend 2023 summer festival of Music on the Strait. Founded in 2018 by long-time area residents and friends Garlick and O’Neill, the five-concert festival also spotlighted the artistry of the Tákacs Quartet, pianist Garrick Ohlsson, Seattle Symphony concertmaster Noah Geller, and marimbist Mari Yoshinaga.
Clara Schumann composed her Three Romances near the end of the happy period of her marriage to Robert, her childhood sweetheart. In the following year, 1854, her husband attempted suicide. Two years after that, he died in the asylum to which he had committed himself.
Beyond the yearning common to music of the Romantic period, none of the couple’s suffering and pain is audible in Clara’s Three Romances. Denk began the first Romance with breathtaking poetry, his playing marked by free Romantic give and take. Garlick followed suit as the two artists allowed tempi to match the beat of the music’s heart.
The second movement Allegretto opened in the shadow of transitory darkness before a gentle springtime breeze started to blow and flowers opened in full bloom. By movement’s end, Denk and Garlick had bathed Clara Schumann’s garden in sunlight and smiles. In the final “Leidenschaftlich schnell” (passionately quick), as much as I wished for a bit more singing sweetness at the top of Garlick’s range, he and Denk reached into the core of this uncommonly beautiful music.
After witty and informed commentary by Denk on the intimacies of the romantic threesome, as revealed in Robert’s letters to Clara, the pianist joined Aznavoorian for Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70, originally for horn and piano. The change from the originally announced Märchenbilder (Fairy Tales), Op. 113 (1851), gave the cellist ample opportunity to display her gorgeous, edge-free tone. Aznavoorian consistently channeled her soul into the center of her sound, even in the Allegro’s fastest and most virtuosic passages. Denk’s uncommonly fluid and responsive playing remained as lyric as in the Romances.
Before the concert, I had dreaded the prospect of an afternoon of “modern” quasi-metronomic performances of romantic music that would treat the freer interpretations of such departed greats as the Busch Quartet, Rudolf Serkin, and Arthur Rubinstein as “old-fashioned.” But even being relieved of such concerns during the first half of the concert did not prepare me for how in-the-moment Denk, Garlick, O’Neill, and Aznavoorian sounded during Brahms’ Piano Quartet.
Denk began the work at his best, charging the opening bars with churning emotion. When the string players took over, their blend was perfection. Tremendous intensity and yearning, occasionally punctuated by delicate interjections from the piano, led to an moving second movement. O’Neill’s sound was consistently smooth and warm.
The third movement launched with music in a lighter mode, albeit far from carefree, before the churning resumed. A combination of subtle and major changes in dynamics made every line that Denk played unique. The final movement, replete with melodies inspired by the Romani people of Europe, was filled with passion, drive, and exuberance. With occasional interludes of longing, the music continued to dance to a triumphant conclusion.