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Music review

Marlboro’s edge still sharp

Richard Goode, a pianist and the festival’s codirector, played Schumann Sunday. Richard Goode, a pianist and the festival’s codirector, played Schumann Sunday. (Michael Wilson)
By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / August 12, 2009

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MARLBORO, Vt. - A wave of nervous laughter rippled through the Marlboro Music Festival audience at Saturday night’s concert. Three instrumentalists had just walked on stage to play George Crumb’s “Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale),’’ a 1971 piece that not only requires amplification for the flute, cello, and piano, but asks for the stage to be bathed in aqua blue light and for the players to perform in masks. Marlboro is usually described as venerable and storied but rarely as cutting edge, and the odd setup induced a wary sense of “What are we in for now?’’ among many listeners.

Yet if the sights and sounds of the piece were strange, the excellent performance showed continuity with Marlboro’s spirit. From its beginnings, the 59-year-old festival has been devoted to the intensive study and restudy of the chamber repertoire, and one of its guiding principles is that each indication in a composer’s score is to be treated as sacrosanct. It was refreshing to see that idea applied as faithfully to Crumb as to Mozart and Dvorak. And though the eerie shadings of “Vox Balaenae’’ sound somewhat dated now, the commitment of the players - flutist Marina Piccinini, cellist Susan Babini, and pianist Amy Jiaqi Yang - made it a highly invigorating experience.

Preceding the Crumb on Saturday were songs for tenor, clarinet, and piano by the neglected German composer Ludwig Spohr, which were notable mostly for the superb playing of clarinetist Sarah Beaty. The program ended with Mendelssohn’s Octet for strings, in which a young ensemble was joined by violinist Philip Setzer of the Emerson String Quartet. (Such mixing of ages and skill levels is a Marlboro hallmark.) Though the performance achieved remarkable precision and transparency, it was also driven to the point of harshness at many moments.

Sunday’s concert opened with a group of lieder, two by Mozart and three by Schubert. From each composer one heard songs of both nocturnal loneliness and carefree love. All were sung by baritone John Moore with ringing tone, intelligent phrasing, and deeply dramatic character. The pianist, Anna Polonsky, was equally impressive.

Setzer was back on stage with a different group for Schoenberg’s string sextet “Verklärte Nacht.’’ This is a piece with a long Marlboro history: One of the festival’s legendary members, violinist Felix Galimir, knew Schoenberg and led many gripping performances of “Verklärte Nacht’’ at Marlboro over the years. Sunday’s version was highly polished and beautifully played, though it missed some of the white-hot urgency of those earlier readings.

The weekend ended with an outstanding performance of Schumann’s Piano Trio in D minor, with Richard Goode, the festival’s codirector, at the piano. The trio is an inwardly focused piece that needs a careful mix of forward momentum and internal balance to unlock its knotty textures. This Goode and his cohorts, violinist Korbinian Altenberger and cellist Paul Wiancko, provided in spades, especially in the poignant slow movement and the fleet finale.

The festival’s final performances are this weekend.

MARLBORO MUSIC FESTIVAL

At Marlboro College, Saturday and Sunday

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