Marlboro Players' Satisfying Mix at the Freer

Friday, November 17, 2006

Ludwig van Beethoven was not, so far as we know, really a fun guy. But he did loosen his trademark cravat a bit in mid-career to write nearly 200 settings of folk songs, and while the results aren't pure gold (one critic calls them "the hack work of a genius"), they're playful, a bit quirky and actually kind of fun.

The fine young mezzo Tamara Mumford opened Wednesday night's Musicians From Marlboro concert at the Freer Gallery with six of the songs, and while she has a strong voice with an appealing bite to it, she sounded tense and rather formal, despite crisp, playful accompaniment by Lily Francis on violin, Marcy Rosen on cello and the always amazing Ieva Jokubaviciute at the piano.

The program moved into infinitely deeper waters with a vivid account of Bela Bartok's wondrous String Quartet No. 4, in which Francis and Rosen were joined by Yura Lee on violin and Eric Nowlin on viola. At first it felt like the players were in over their heads -- the brusque, take-no-prisoners Allegro that opens the work felt timid and woefully domesticated -- but they rallied well and played the rest of the piece with imagination and impressive technical skill.

Mumford returned to the stage with Brahms's much-loved "Zwei Gesange," Op. 91. The first song felt cast in concrete and promptly sank, but the second was everything you want in Brahms: luminous, warm, simultaneously full-blooded and absolutely weightless; a beautiful account. Violist Katie Kadarauch then joined the string players for a very robust account of Mozart's Quintet in D, K. 593 -- more muscular than Mozart is usually played, but brought off with conviction and sweeping power.

-- Stephen Brookes

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