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Originally published Thursday, July 25, 2013 at 12:23 PM

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Quartet skillfully navigates haunting Shostakovich

A review of the July 24, 2013 concert in the Seattle Chamber Music Society Summer Festival, which featured Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 7 and Seattle Symphony concertmaster Alexander Velinzon on a Brahms piece.

Special to The Seattle Times

CONCERT REVIEW

Seattle Chamber Music Society Summer Festival

Final concert Friday in Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; 7 p.m. recital is free; 8 p.m. concert is $15-$45 (very limited availability; 206-283-8808 or www.seattlechambermusic.org).

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It is a commonplace among music historians to write about Shostakovich’s string quartets as his most personal and intimate works, expressing the irony and the despair he felt as a victim of Soviet oppression. Of his 15 quartets, none is bleaker or more personal than the String Quartet No. 7 (dating from 1960), composed in memory of his late first wife.

A spellbound audience heard this work performed — and recorded — by festival director and violinist James Ehnes with violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti, violist Richard O’Neill, and cellist Robert deMaine. (The same foursome recorded Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 8 in a preconcert recital.) The four players revealed the haunted landscape of Quartet No. 7 with a tremendous and impressive variety of sound, from the subtly uneasy opening to manic intensity in the last movement. There were delicate wisps of melody, slow passages of deep grief, and a third movement of furious, dangerous-sounding energy as each player attacked the phrases like a swarm of angry bees.

The details of the performance were equally telling: big, bold, and solidly unified playing from O’Neill and deMaine; the interplay between the two violins, and most of all, Ehnes’ subtle lead in phrasing that made every musical line speak to the listeners.

The temperature inside the hall rose from warm to downright toasty during the performance, because the air-conditioning was turned off (its noise level interferes with the recording). The rising temperature did nothing to diminish the audience’s enthusiasm for the performance, though no one complained when the climate-control system was reactivated after the Shostakovich.

Almost any piece that followed might suffer by comparison, and that was the fate of a perfectly nice but less inspired Mendelssohn Violin Sonata (in F Major) that came after the Shostakovich. Violinist Erin Keefe gave the score a lively energy and strong lyricism; at the piano, Anna Polonsky provided impassioned support. It was an accomplished performance, but not an exceptional one.

The Seattle Chamber Music Society has always featured outstanding local talent on the artist roster alongside visiting musicians, and interest in Wednesday’s finale was high when Alexander Velinzon joined the ensemble for the Brahms Piano Quartet in A Major. Velinzon, concertmaster of the Seattle Symphony, brought his first-chair talents — elegant phrasing, eloquent tone, and leadership — to the ensemble (which included pianist Orion Weiss, violist David Harding, and cellist Amit Peled). Balances were sometimes a bit off in favor of the piano and the cello, but the playing was nonetheless beautiful: full of contrasts and artful details, with a pulse-pounding finale that propelled the audience members right out of their chairs into riotous applause.

Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at mbargreen@aol.com.

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