“Contrast” is a constant buzzword in the classical music world. Students are told to play two contrasting pieces in their auditions; teachers demonstrate contrasting dynamics for budding musicians; conductors construct their concert programs around contrasting pieces. It can demonstrate a musician’s emotional depth or highlight their mastery of various techniques—or, more practically, keep the audience’s attention. James Ehnes, Artistic Director of Seattle Chamber Music Society, set out to explore this classical convention in the organization’s month-long summer festival. Inspired by the great diversity of style achieved by Beethoven throughout his life, the various performances place Mozart next to Poulenc and Stephen Stucky against Mendelssohn, exploring the ways in which superficially conflicting works highlight other pieces’ nuances and distinctness.
Despite the concept of contrast at the helm, Ehnes keeps each program rather thematic, as proven by the SCMS Summer Festival’s July 17 performance. Britten’s sparse Canticle I and Canticle III mingled with a familiar Brahms horn trio and Strauss’s lush string septet Metamorphosen. This program’s unique combination of pieces undoubtedly provided the intended contrast that Ehnes is striving for, the works clashing in style and genre. However, when performed in succession, the pieces flow together into a sort of musical elegy.
Britten’s two performed Canticles were composed as a commemoration to figures during Britten’s lifetime, and the slow movements of the Brahms trio are often mapped onto his feelings about the death of his mother. Strauss’s unsubtle “IN MEMORIAM” heading towards the end of his Metamorphosen score—during which Beethoven’s “Eroica” theme is famously quoted—is often interpreted as a remembrance of Germany’s reign of musical greatness, then rapidly in decline.
Britten’s Canticles are infused with a unique introspection, full of somber religiosity and sincere love that was explored and embodied exquisitely by lyric tenor Nicholas Phan. Lauded as “the perfect Benjamin Britten tenor” by Musical Toronto, Phan’s sweetness of tone and divine, floated high notes echo that of Britten’s life partner and tenor Peter Pears, for whom Britten composed much of his vocal output. Phan’s delivery of Canticle I, “My Beloved is Mine,” was done with such precision and natural grace that even his breaths embodied the lover’s urgent affection, his consonants lingering with sensuality. Tenderness balanced with perfectly delayed releases by pianist Joyce Yang, who played effortlessly to Phan’s tone and text delivery. Performing the Canticles demands total embodiment of the character; unfortunately, Phan became himself again towards the end, losing his urgency and focus on the repeated final line of text (“that he is mine.”). What should have been a heightened moment of serenity instead crashed down to earth, breaking the illusion of character and weakening the poignancy of the tenderly held final note.
If including a vocal selection on a chamber music program is an unusual choice, following it with a hugely popular Brahms piece is an ameliorating one, serving as a palate cleanser of conservative Romantic predictability. Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano in E-flat Major toys with images of hunting horns and dance-like themes, only to dissolve into achingly pathos-ridden melodies in the middle two movements. Pianist Jeremy Denk and violinist Yura Lee embraced the depth of expressive potential in this fast-paced and structured composition. Their joking motifs and yearning harmonies were perfectly in sync, every sensitive harmony of the piano engaging with the gossamer threads of Lee’s performance. But three’s a crowd, as the adage goes. While horn player Jeffrey Fair shone in his solo passages, with impressively light tone quality in his high register and moments of wonderful dexterity in the frenetic finale, the expressive imbalance between him and the other two instrumentalists was distracting, giving the effect of a poignant dynamic duo with a technically advanced sidekick.
The melancholic strophes of Canticle III (“Still falls the rain”) welcomed the audience back from intermission. Phan’s overall performance of this Passion-based text was no less striking than his opening piece, with piercingly pure vowels and a dramatically abrupt half-spoken line, accompanied again by Yang on piano and joined by Fair on horn. Sensitive execution mirrored the piece’s understated nature, its final cadence a modest and unassuming profession of devotion. (“Still do I love, still shed my innocent light, my Blood for thee.”)
Britten’s stylistic signature is music that sounds intimate, sparse, haunting—the musical embodiment of an austere chapel, abandoned save for the pews and altar, all stone and filtered light. Strauss’ Metamorphosen is the antithesis to this ascetic intimacy, using a large performing force of a string septet to coax the most voluptuous harmonies from every corner of the concert hall. With pervasive emphasis on the lower sonorities of the ensemble, Metamorphosen’s single movement stretches and develops imitatively, its harmonies beginning with rather conventional progressions, but gradually becoming more experimental and unpredictable. One primary theme reigns forebodingly and incessantly above the piece—the “Eroica”—quoted verbatim with a grim, funereal affect at the end, revealing its Beethovenian roots.
With Ehnes taking the lead as first violin, the ensemble seemed to become an organic entity. Each note seeped sinuously from one instrument to the next. Each phrase closed with an almost palpable breath as the musicians dove headfirst into the next tenuously heartbreaking line. Impeccable cohesion of phrasing, harmony and tone between all seven players yielded a captivating performance to finish the evening.
While exiting the hall, I overheard a concert-goer quip that the Strauss felt like it “could go on forever.” Though the comment was tinged with annoyance, I felt that she perfectly described my own perception of the performance—Metamorphosen felt as if it were suspended in time, transfixing the hall in a perpetual state of ebb and flow.
The concert’s theme of commemoration and the unexpected ways in which the pieces’ textures and sonorities were enhanced by contrast stands as a testament to the variety of human ways of remembrance—each singular, individual, beautiful. Britten composes an intimate love song in memoriam of someone who was never his lover; Brahms achieves the same goal through bold hunting melodies and instrumentation choices. Strauss musically grieves his culture and, in so doing, contributes a hauntingly beautiful piece to Germany’s musical canon. And on July 17, Seattle Chamber Music Society explored them all, bringing beauty to the depth of loss.