As part of the opening week of their Summer Festival, the Seattle Chamber Music Society presented an ambitious program with a distinguished ensemble of performers that included Festival Artistic Director, violinist James Ehnes. The venue itself, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, has garnered praise as one of the most admired in the United States with good reason: the hall is the appropriate size for more intimate presentations with smaller sized ensembles, yet large enough to give listeners the feeling they are participating in something grander than chamber music in a congenial atmosphere.

James Ehnes
© Benjamin Ealovega

The program, with consistently excellent performances on the highest level, offered the audience two Classical and Romantic favorites, as bookends for a 20th-century piece very much in the romantic vein.

Beethoven’s Serenade in D major, Op 25, for flute, violin and viola, long thought to belong to the same period as the Clarinet Trio, now seems more likely to have been composed from 1800–01, making the Serenade a close contemporary of the popular Septet, with which it has much in common compositionally.

Influenced by the 18th-century divertimento tradition, especially Haydn’s “London” Trios, Beethoven wrapped the work in a six-movement form, starting with the march-like Entrata, crisply played by the ensemble.

The gentlemanly Tempo ordinario d'un Menuetto has two trios, the first performed elegantly by violinist Andrew Wan and violist Matthew Lipman and the second highlighting Lorna McGhee’s alluring flute playing. The work’s centerpiece, its Andante con variazioni, featured attention-grabbing passages for each instrument in turn, allowing the individual soloists to create awareness of their outstanding capabilities. Throughout, the interplay between all the instruments was deft and energetic. Violist Lipman stood out with his lush sound and deftly executed technique.

Joaquín Turina generally is not as celebrated as his countrymen and mentors Albéniz and Falla, but he was impressively prolific in his body of works for stage, voice, orchestra, chamber ensembles, guitar and keyboard. His Piano Quartet in A minor from 1931 displays a canny knowledge of the Romantic period coupled with a mastery of the styles of his own time.

The first movement, Lento – Andante mosso, begins with a Bartók-like refrain, played with great delicacy and lush sonorities by violinist Kristóf Baráti, violist David Harding and cellist Ani Aznavoorian. It is in the second Vivo movement that the composer’s Spanish roots, announced with great flair by solo pianist Piers Lane, are truly in evidence. Here the ambiance of southern Spain starts to captivate the listener, with the pianist’s chords and string pizzicato evoking the always present guitar in the folk music of Andalusia.

Baráti swept through the opening cadenza of the third movement Andante-Allegro with great bravado, with pianist Lane alternating the duple-triple rhythms with Spanish finesse. Aznavoorian’s swooning solos were deeply felt. All three string players created an atmosphere of mystery with their sul ponticello special effects. A number of passages in this movement paid homage to the A minor Piano Trio of Maurice Ravel, whose maternal roots lay squarely in the Basque countryside.

Mendelssohn’s talents as a musical prodigy were recognized at an early age, but his parents, unlike Mozart’s father Leopold, did not try to push him into musical greatness. He simply arrived there with a combination of inborn ability and assiduousness. The Piano Trio no. 1, D minor, published in 1840, one of his most frequently performed chamber works, is acknowledged as one of his greatest along with his Octet for Strings. The work assigns an important role and some of the most prominent technical challenges to the piano, due to in part to the counsel of Mendelssohn’s composer colleague Ferdinand Hiller and the input of Robert Schumann, who declared Mendelssohn “the Mozart of the nineteenth century, the brightest musician.”

The piano part of this trio is as difficult to play as Schumann’s Piano Concerto. Some of these challenges start right off in the first movement, Molto allegro ed agitato, and at the vigorous tempo chosen by the ensemble, one would have wished for more pinpoint precision from Weiss, though his interpretation was intensely emotional in the best sense.

Ehnes and cellist Robert DeMaine were perfectly matched. They played their unisons in the first movement lushly and homogeneously. Ehnes is a consistently strong player. DeMaine’s tone was sumptuous and powerful. In the Andante con moto tranquillo, they each rendered the introductory theme with opulence and great sensitivity.

All three instrumentalists performed the Scherzo: Leggiero e vivace with Midsummer Night’s Dream delicacy and humor, with Ehnes’ impressive spiccato flying over the strings. The Finale: Allegro assai appassionato is usually a showstopper, and this performance was no exception, ending the overwhelmingly gratifying evening with great bravura.