James Ehnes, violinist and Seattle Chamber Music Society artistic director, and pianist Andrew Armstrong provided some of Sunday’s most exciting music in a program of Beethoven, Debussy and Shostakovich. The festival continues through Jan. 27.

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Concert review

It may be winter, but it’s still festival time inside Benaroya Hall’s Nordstrom Recital Hall. On Sunday afternoon, Jan. 20, a happy crowd of concertgoers thronged through the recital hall’s jampacked lobby, on their way to a program of chamber gems: a trio, a duo, and a quintet.

Artistic director James Ehnes was on hand for the event, the third of six concerts in the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s annual winter counterpart to its longer-running summer festival. Not surprisingly, Ehnes — one of the country’s most highly regarded violinists — and his duo partner, pianist Andrew Armstrong, provided some of Sunday’s most exciting music in a program that extended from Beethoven to Debussy and Shostakovich.

The stormy Beethoven Violin Sonata in C Minor (Op. 30, No. 2) of 1802 ranks among some of the finest works in this genre, and Ehnes gave it a noble reading. Patrician in phrasing, powerful in approach, this performance also was perfectly balanced between violinist and pianist. Armstrong was with Ehnes in every well-chosen phrase, every pause and attack. The interplay in the Adagio Cantabile movement was particularly fine.

The program’s hors d’oeuvre, Debussy’s charming and evocative Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp, brought together three first-rate players: two Seattle Symphony musicians (principal flutist Demarre McGill and harpist Valerie Muzzolini), and violist Matthew Lipman, an international chamber-festival musician. The Debussy offers lots of textures: the instruments are blown, plucked, and bowed (respectively), and Debussy gives them plenty of lustrous, colorful interplay. The three players, all closely attuned to each other, emphasized the contrasts between the delicate and declarative passages in a stylish, often ethereal performance.

Shostakovich’s Quintet for Piano and Strings in G Minor (Op. 57) is one of the great chamber works of the 20th century. Composed during World War II, the quintet’s five movements range from expressions of furious energy and sardonic humor to quiet lyricism and existential despair, all rendered with a wide array of colors and effects from the five instruments (violinists Scott St. John and Sean Lee, violist Sharon Wei, cellist Efe Baltacigil, and pianist Joyce Yang). St. John took a commanding lead in the ensemble, making some lovely interpretive points in his extended solos. The performance brought forth the huge emotional range of the Shostakovich — and brought down the house, as well.

What a gift this wintertime presence offers the area’s chamber-music fans, in these traffic-ridden, post-holiday weeks when summer seems an eternity away.


The Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Winter Festival, through Jan. 27; Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $20-$55; 206-283-8808, seattlechambermusic.org