A passionate, intimate gathering in Marlboro, Vt.
MARLBORO, Vt. — This summer marks the 60th season of the Marlboro Music Festival. There is, however, something timeless about this venerable chamber music gathering. Ensembles still mix players of varying levels of experience; the repertoire still hews largely — though by no means exclusively — to established composers of the 18th through mid-20th centuries; and the whole thing has an informal feel that’s at odds with the intensity of the music-making, which occurs in rehearsal and on stage. Indeed, at its best — which it mostly was this past weekend — Marlboro produces some of the greatest chamber music anywhere.
Saturday’s concert opened with Beethoven’s String Trio in C minor, Op. 9, No. 3, which drew a polished and impassioned performance from violinist Dina Nesterenko, violist Kyle Armbrust, and cellist Marcy Rosen. At times the passion was too much of a good thing, as if the performers saw the work as a tempestuous middle-period work rather than the fruit of Beethoven’s early maturity.
What followed was one of the weekend’s highlights: a profound reading of Schumann’s great song cycle “Dichterliebe’’ by tenor Nicholas Phan and pianist Mitsuko Uchida, one of the festival’s codirectors. Phan is an excellent young singer whose voice is patchy at the top but powerful in its middle and lower ranges. More important, he penetrated deeply into the inner drama of each of the 16 songs. But he was almost upstaged by Uchida’s playing, which was so sensitive and insightful that it went far beyond the role of accompaniment. During the piano codas, she seemed to open up an interior world that recalled the composer’s best solo piano music. They made a superb duo, and certain songs — “Ich grolle nicht’’ (“I bear no grudge’’) and “Ich hab in Traum geweinet’’ (“I wept in my dream’’) — almost overpowered in their intensity.
Cellist Rosen returned after intermission with three younger colleagues for a performance of Bartok’s Sixth String Quartet, an elusive work whose character remains somewhat obscure until its deeply melancholy finale. Aside from some brief tuning problems, Saturday’s performance was one of astonishing precision, the quartet adroitly navigating Bartok’s unusual textures and rapid mood changes. If some final quantum of intensity seemed to be missing, perhaps that was due to this hermetic piece rather than to the performers.
Sunday’s concert was an object lesson in balances: the careful weighing of voices and phrases that allows as much of the musical material as possible to be heard. A selection of songs with obbligato instruments tested the performers’ skills in this regard: Adolf Busch’s Three Songs, Op. 3a, and Schubert’s lengthy, multipart song “Auf dem Strom’’ (“On the River’’). Busch, one of Marlboro’s founders, was a competent composer but no more; the songs were notable for the intertwining of Jennifer Johnson’s plush mezzo-soprano and Geraldine Walther’s viola. The Schubert is a far deeper exploration of parting and sorrow. The equilibrium between Susanna Phillips’ silvery soprano and Radovan Vlatkovic’s horn was trickier to maintain, but for the most they succeeded. Lydia Brown was the excellent pianist in both.
Between them came a rarity — Schumann’s “Six Etudes in Canonic Form,’’ originally written for pedal piano and arranged for two pianos by Debussy. These little gems not only display Schumann’s contrapuntal skill but are full of character as well. Cynthia Raim and Amy Jiaqi Yang were scrupulous in the care they gave to each motif, as it was passed gently back and forth between them.
Closing out the weekend was an ebullient performance of Dvorak’s Sextet for Strings, Op. 48. This is not, to my ears, the composer’s finest piece of chamber music, but that was no barrier to enjoying the work of the ensemble, which included New England Conservatory violist Kim Kashkashian. Here, the work of maintaining balances reached a new level; I can’t recall having heard so much inner detail in this busy piece before. It bespoke the thoroughness of preparation that, 60 years on, is still Marlboro’s hallmark.
The festival’s final performances are this weekend.
David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.