The Seattle Chamber Music Society Summer Festival continued online with its second program, featuring well-known works of two of the “Three Bs” – Bach and Beethoven – paired with a lesser-known work of Respighi.

Alessio Bax plays Bach
© Seattle Chamber Music Society

Bach’s English Suites for keyboard, considered his earliest works in the genre, show undeniable similarities to his French Suites and Partitas, though stylistically are more intricate. The English Suite no. 2 in A minor comprises six traditional dance movements preceded by a Prelude: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Bourrée I and II, and Gigue. These precisely written pieces require great exactitude. Pianist Alessio Bax fulfilled that specification to the letter and made it look easy.

With his fingers ever close to the keys, Bax kept the complexity of voices clear and distinct within the swiftly paced Prelude and exploited the subtle melodies and counterpoint of the Allemande with grace and insight. The more introspective Courante and Sarabande floated sonorously, a contemplative contrast to the lively Bourrées. In perhaps the most demanding of the movements, the pyrotechnics of the Gigue echoed the Prelude in their difficulty. Bax performed with rapid-fire vigor and precision, combining zest with delicate touch. 

Progressing chronologically, the skillful ensemble consisting of Amy Schwartz Moretti, James Ehnes and Edward Arron interpreted Beethoven’s String Trio in G major, Op.9 no.1, with elegance and refinement. Ehnes, as violist, provided the perfect anchor for Moretti above and Arron below. The four movements in this early Beethoven work follow the standard classical style that Mozart and Haydn polished to a brilliant shine: AllegrettoAdagio, Scherzo: Allegro and Presto. However, Beethoven lost no time in taking this perfection to an astonishing new level that required modern shades of subtlety, which he then expanded into his Op.18 string quartets. 

The three string players fine-tuned the movements, bringing out each voice clearly, while melding melody with harmony to sound as one instrument, all while using Beethoven’s original fingerings. Moretti took charge, her lovely sound especially captivating in the upper-range melody of the Adagio, and performed with elegance in the Scherzo. The ambitious tempo of the Presto showed off the players’ outstanding techniques. All three deftly combined prominent elements of Haydn and Mozart’s chamber styles, accomplishing a tasteful blend to finish the work with a flourish.

Amy Schwartz Moretti, Arnaud Sussmann, Alessio Bax, Edward Arron and James Ehnes
© Seattle Chamber Music Society

Respighi’s Piano Quintet in F minor is not frequently performed. In this rendition, Bax collaborated with Moretti and Arnaud Sussmann, violins, Ehnes and Arron. Known mostly for his large orchestral works, notably his Pines and Fountains of Rome, the composer’s 1902 Quintet in many ways is reminiscent of the Brahms work in the same key. Respighi begins the Allegro movement with a Schumannesque arpeggiated melody in the piano, and a brooding string accompaniment in octaves. All five players kept the momentum and clarity in the thickly written textures, here and in the Brahmsian second melody. 

In contrast to his Baroque precision in Bach, Bax showed his lyrical side here, playing his part like a virtuoso piano concerto. Moretti and Sussmann responded in kind, meshing their high register sounds with power and robustness. Arron shone in his expressive passages. The brief Andantino is more sentimental in nature. The strings introduce a soulful melody, again in octaves. These players demonstrated how exceptional they are at executing this difficult aspect of chamber music performance accurately in tune. The Vivacissimo finale was another Brahms-Schumann fusion, featuring exquisitely played piano melodies and passagework. The string playing was poignant and touching.   

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