The much-respected Seattle Chamber Music Society opened its 2021 Summer Festival at Seattle’s newly built Center for Chamber Music by bookending Joaquín Turina’s rarely heard string quartet La oración del torero (The Bullfighter's Prayer) with two composers’ early string octets: the less familiar Prelude and Scherzo Op.11 by Dmitri Shostakovich and Felix Mendelssohn’s legendary Op.20. From 20th-century to evocatively Classic and Romantic, the works were spirited, full of bravura and performed with panache and undisputed virtuosity. Festival Artistic Director James Ehnes, himself a polished violinist who assumed the role of violist in this program, assembled a cadre of world class string players who shone brilliantly throughout. The level of playing was extraordinary.

Augustin Hadelich and ensemble
© Seattle Chamber Music Society

In his bleak octet, Shostakovich paid homage both to his close friend, poet Vladimir Kurchavov, and to JS Bach, though shades of Poulenc and early Schoenberg are palpable. Despite occurring early in the composer’s output, the 1924 work sounds incredibly advanced and ahead of its time. The virtuoso first violin part was placed in the capable hands of Sussmann, a stylish player who led with authority, with supporting passages expertly executed by all the instrumentalists. Sussmann emphasized the great contrasts between ominousness and lightness in the Prelude and was especially impressive in the cadenza-like passages high up on the fingerboard. All the players’ sounds blending seamlessly with his own. 

The son of an Italian painter, Turina used color in a visually artistic way to portray the Toreador’s humility in his 1925 La oración del torero. Turina composed a substantial amount of chamber music, and this work is one of the most evocative of that collection. Written in a single movement, the piece not surprisingly shows the influence of Impressionist giants Debussy and Ravel, but with an unmistakable late Spanish Impressionistic essence. The musical colors and flavors came across hauntingly in the interpretation by Lark, Hadelich, Vinocur and Aznavoorian. They expressed the subtle ambiance and ambivalent thoughts of the bullfighter with spirited, exciting audacity, their muted instruments creating an atmosphere of romance and mystery. The ensemble was strong and unwavering, powerful in their lyricism and sensitive to all the contrasting tempi and emotions. The violins shimmered in the top register, and the cellos provided sonorous support underneath.

Seattle Chamber Music Society's octet ensemble
© Seattle Chamber Music Society

By the age of 16, Mendelssohn already showed remarkable proficiency, maturity and adeptness in his wildly popular String Octet in E flat major, the first of its kind and the benchmark of the genre ever since. The work, which precedes those of Shostakovich and Turina by a full century, gives each player a chance to display individual virtuosity; the ensemble made the most of the opportunity. As first violin, Hadelich, who is known as one of today’s most highly regarded soloists, seized upon the violinistic elements throughout with chamber music subtlety. From the trickiest, most virtuosic passages in the first and Midsummer Night’s Dream-like Scherzo movements, to the lyricism of the heartrending Andante and exhilaration of the fugue-infused finale, he displayed superb versatility, his aggressive sound soaring above the other instruments when appropriate. Hadelich is a violinist’s violinist.

The other musicians not only provided support but played up the brilliance of the composer’s vivid writing for all the instruments: at once radiant, splendid, and sonorous. A resplendent end to a diverse, well-played program that would fulfill the desires of any chamber music aficionado. 

This performance was reviewed from Seattle Chamber Music Society's video stream