The Marlboro folks issued these three live-in-concert recordings for their 60th anniversary (their Web site points you to www.arkivmusic.com for purchasing— search for “Marlboro”). The festival was founded in 1951 by pianist Rudolf Serkin (its artistic director for 40 years), violinist Adolf Busch, and others, and it provides a retreat where some of classical music’s best musicians rehearse and perform in a relaxed setting with up-and-coming talents. I hate to leave these great artists uncredited in this limited space, but Arkiv Music lists them all accurately.
Had the notes not told me that Mozart’s String Quintet in D was recorded in 2005, I would have guessed the early Sixties, maybe, from the playing style. The shimmery tone, the leisurely pacing, the geniality and the tenderness seem to recall a less hurried time. The first two movements have positively Beethovenian silences; the Menuet has some of Mozart’s most charming melodies and is rendered with tasteful rubato from the players. Beethoven’s Archduke Trio is solid but lacks magic and fire; David Soyer, the cellist, had a habit of telling pianists they were too loud, and Mitsuko Uchida indeed sounds tentative, especially in the Andante Cantabile. She’s charming in the last movement, though. The Andante from Schubert’s E-Flat Trio is delightful and songlike except for the weighted- down climax.
The first movement of the Debussy String Quartet is slightly caffeinated, and the Scherzo pushes even more; the Andantino, gauzy though the texture be, has strength. There’s no milquetoast here: this is a surging, lively performance, clear in vision and stunning despite a handful of out-of-tune notes. Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro is subtly colored, and his String Quartet is played as ably as the Debussy, with a little brighter sound.
Respighi’s Il Tramonto is a setting in Italian of Shelley’s poem The Sunset for mezzo soprano and string quartet; it’s slow-paced and understated, where it probably would have been turgid in German hands at the time (1914). Jennifer Johnson, the soloist, really shines; she has a pleasant, expressive voice, and her tone is very consistent throughout her range. Her diction, good in the Respighi, is clearer still in Robert Cuckson’s Der Gayst Funem Shturem (The Spirit of the Storm, 2003), a brilliant setting of five Yiddish texts for voice and instrumental octet. Shostakovich’s seldom-heard Songs on Hebrew Themes (sung in German) have a Western smoothness to them but are still quite effective; the tenor is light-voiced, but the women are fine, and quite spooky in “Concerned Mother to the Aunt.” The entrancing ending of “Song of the Maidens” is worth the whole disc.
Taken as a group these three discs offer a good survey of the Marlboro Festival: over 200 minutes of well-played standards and a few rarities, all taped in front of appreciative audiences. About half the pieces sound a little distant (the vocal disc needs more heft on the bottom end), but the other half are nicely balanced and more immediate. The notes have texts and translations for the vocal music, and the musicians reminisce with frankness and humor.