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A Classy Brand

By. B.A. Nilsson

Musicians from Marlboro, Tamara Mumford

Union College Memorial Chapel, Feb. 23

Athough individual name recog nition has long been a key force in driving classical music sales, Musicians from Marlboro is a rare example of successful branding. For over half a century, Vermont’s Marlboro College has offered a summer music training program, initially run by founders Rudolf Serkin and Adolf Busch, now under the aegis of Richard Goode and Mitsuko Uchida. And anyone who goes out on a Marlboro tour, although not individually known, is guaranteed to be a superb player. Name recognition usually follows.

More importantly, these players work together as superior ensembles in a variety of configurations. The string players of a piano trio joined two others to become a string quartet, then a quintet, each time delivering a polished performance.

The career of mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford has taken off since she made her Metropolitan Opera debut two years ago. She sang four of Beethoven’s hundred-plus settings of Irish, Welsh, and Scottish folk songs—a series commissioned by Scottish publisher George Thomson that are among the most delightfully frothy of the great composer’s works.

What’s special about Mumford’s voice shone through “The Lovely Lass of Inverness,” a setting of a Robert Burns lament (itself inspired by a much older text) that throbbed with sweet melancholy. It sounded as effortless as it did affecting, and Mumford enjoyed a transparent rapport with pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute, violinist Lily Francis and cellist Marcy Rosen.

The style of these settings is simple: A brief instrumental intro sets up the melody (with which Beethoven was supplied); the voice typically is doubled by one of the string instruments as the piano explores arpeggiated accompaniment textures. Whether dolorous (“The Sweetest Lad Was Jamie”), sardonic (“Dermont and Shelah”) or high-spirited (“Come Draw We Round a Cheerful Ring”), these morceaux are always entertaining, especially when treated as seriously as the songs deserve.

Brahms’s Two Songs were written around the time of the Symphony No. 3. Scored for the unusual accompaniment of piano and viola, they set contrasting texts both touching on sleep. The stunning combination of Mumford’s timbre and that of violist Eric Nowlin served texts and settings beautifully; where Beethoven deliberately wrote salon pieces, Brahms explored a richer canvas, and more than received his due.

If we were in danger of thinking that the string quartet had stagnated into permanent romanticism by the early 20th century, Bartók’s six quartets changed all that. No. 4, from 1928, is a carefully structured five-movement work spinning melodic fragments into emotional turmoil, but singing from its heart in a slow movement placed in the middle. This movement is the anti-Barber: evocative without being sentimental, a meditative turning-point in a challenging work that showed what fiery virtuosos these players—Francis, Nowlin, Rosen and violinist Yura Lee—could become.

By contrast, Mozart’s Quintet in D Major invited a different kind of intensity. Written at the very end of Mozart’s life, this work deftly exploits the aural possibilities of adding a second viola (played by Maiya Papach) to the quartet lineup, often setting violins against violas, with the cello functioning as anything from continuity instrument to referee. Having mastered the form, Mozart infused the work with great humor, such as the surprising finish of the first movement, and throughout the Haydn-esque finale. Lee took the leader’s chair for this piece, and brought a lovely voice to the melodic plaint that defined the adagio.

This was a rich, satisfying program offering less-often-heard works by four major composers. While such unfamiliarity can be a hiding place for the musicians, in this case there was no question that we were enjoying the work of artists so accomplished they need no place to hide.

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