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Nearly 20 years have passed since Byron Schenkman came to Seattle and co-founded Seattle Baroque with violinist Ingrid Matthews. During that time, the expressive and charismatic Schenkman has migrated from the harpsichord to the fortepiano and the modern piano (and occasionally back again). You can never tell which instrument he might favor in a given concert – but you know it’s going to be good.

That was the case in Sunday night’s spirited and nicely detailed inaugural concert in the new “Byron Schenkman & Friends” series of classical and baroque chamber music. With violinist Liza Zurlinden, violist Jason Fisher, and cellist Nathan Whittaker – all excellent — Schenkman undertook not only three early Beethoven piano quartets, but also sonatas of Haydn and Boccherini.

Those latter two composers were well established in their careers when the 14-year-old Beethoven was writing these quartets. In his impromptu commentary, Schenkman quipped that the Haydn and Boccherini works were included on this program to show “what the grownups were doing.”

The three early Beethoven quartets are interesting for a number of reasons: the prominence of the piano, the quality of Beethoven’s imagination, and the influence of Mozart gently hovering over the pages. Pianists unfamiliar with Beethoven’s C Major Piano Quartet might be startled to hear themes that would be recycled later, virtually unaltered, in a couple of Beethoven’s piano sonatas.

Schenkman chose a modern Steinway for these performances; the three string players opted for a performance style in which vibrato was used relatively sparingly. The results were a bit heavy on the keyboard, but then, these works give unusual prominence to that instrument.

The Beethoven piano quartets are fascinating blends of marvelous innovation and uninspired passages in which lots of arpeggios go up and down without much musical effect. The performances, fresh and engaging, also had their uneven moments. But there also were lots of high points: the wild gallop of the final Presto movement in Boccherini’s Trio Sonata (Op. 12, No. 4), for example, and the robust ensemble playing of the Beethoven D Major Quartet. Some of the evening’s loveliest moments came in the lone piano solo on the program: Schenkman’s traversal of the Haydn Sonata in D Major, which was crisply articulated and full of character.

In the next program in the series, Schenkman reverts to the harpsichord for an evening of Bach sonatas with violinist Ingrid Matthews, his longtime duo partner (Nov. 24). Expect musical fireworks.

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