Nothing could stop this show from going on — not even a popped viola string nearly midway through Béla Bartók’s grueling String Quartet no. 6 at the center of the program that opened the Seattle Chamber Music Society's 2022 Summer Festival. This latest edition of the seasonal festival marks the first time since closures began that the organization has been able to return to its customary full month of chamber concerts (three per week) performed before a live audience. 

Benjamin Beilman and Byron Schenkman
© Seattle Chamber Music Society

“Anticipation” seems too pale a term to characterize the air of blissful expectation that pervaded the 536-seat Nordstrom Recital Hall in downtown Seattle. Instead of a glitzy opening night devoted to lighter entertainment fare and bonbons, Artistic Director James Ehnes designed a substantial, protein-rich program that kept chamber music values front and center.

There was, to start, the balm of JS Bach’s elegiac melody in the opening Largo of the Sonata in C minor for violin and harpsichord, BWV1017 (a cousin to the rending aria “Erbarme dich” from the St Matthew Passion). Benjamin Beilman phrased with a glowing but meditative tone, tilting slightly on the Romantic side and not overlooking the dance impulses underlying this doleful siciliano. Byron Schenkman, who himself leads an imaginatively curated early music-ish chamber series in Seattle, tastefully pushed the melodic effusion along from the keyboard just when it was beginning to linger and turned into an active sparring partner in the animated contrapuntal exchanges of the fast movements.  

Following such a serious opener, the last of Bartók’s cycle of six string quartets only deepened the mood of somber contemplation. Its unstinting portrayal of a state of grieving is thought to reflect the dire conditions surrounding the composer when he wrote this music in 1939. The Second World War broke out as he worked on the score, while his mother’s terminal illness worsened; she died soon after he finished the Sixth, severing his final tie with collapsing Europe. He soon left for his final years of exile in the USA. 

Appearing in his capacity as a violinist, Ehnes was joined by the rest of his own quartet. Only violinist Amy Schwartz-Moretti remains from the original cast, violist Che-Yen Chen having most recently come on board after Richard O’Neill joined the Takács. In its changing formations, the Ehnes Quartet has worked its way through the Bartók cycle except for the Sixth. This searching performance thus had an added sense of finality for those who have followed SCMS over the years. 

Ehnes Quartet
© Seattle Chamber Music Society

With his opening solo viola lament, Chen established the atmosphere of numbing pain that courses through the work. The slow introductory sections marked mesto (mournful) gradually increase in duration and texture with each movement until it utterly consumes the fourth and final movement. The musicians also dug into the Sixth’s shocking contrasts: the “whistling” effects for the second movement’s sardonic allusions to military marching were all the more chilling when juxtaposed with Bartók’s impression of folk musicians distorted through a funhouse mirror. Edward Arron’s passionate cello declamations were answered by quadruple-stop strumming on viola ferocious enough to break the string; the tense interruption of several minutes that ensued as Chen rushed backstage for a quick repair was soon forgotten as the players resumed in medias res

The instruments made it unscathed through the savage scraping of the darkly quirky third movement. Bartók alludes to late Beethoven quartets in this work, most devastatingly in his rejection of their promise of transcendence. The haunting, dying ensemble breathing of the Ehnes Quartet as the final movement wheezed into non-existence seemed, for a moment, to evoke the respirator nightmares of the pandemic. 

Luxury casting is a feature of SCMS: true to form, an entirely different group of string players joined for the Second of Brahms’ String Quintets, which rounded off the program. Their world-class ensemble music-making and sonic balance enlivened this familiar score with thrilling moments of exchange and mutual discovery – above all in charting the different shades of Brahms’ valedictory outlook here, from the knowing melancholy of the inner movements to the joyful surges of youthful memory framing them. 

****1