from Marlboro, Tamara Mumford
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.