A Seattle Chamber experiment delivers mixed—but mostly good—results.

TO ENSURE THAT fans of the Seattle Chamber Music Festival's summer concerts would turn out for its first January minifestival (even without the upscale chardonnay-on-the-lawn atmosphere afforded by the festival's usual home, Lakeside School), the festival's organizers brought in two musicians well known to Seattle audiences—though not for chamber music.

Seattle Chamber Music Festival

Benaroya Recital Hall

January 8 and 10

Vinson Cole, Seattle Opera's popular first choice for French and Italian lyric tenor roles, opened the festival's Friday concert magnificently, with a brief set of Strauss songs. Accustomed to larger houses, Cole filled the recital hall without a trace of effort, channeling his energies into poetic expression. And horn player John Cerminaro's soaring, velvety tone—one of the glories of the Seattle Symphony for a few years now—came through in a bracing performance of Brahms' Horn Trio.

Among the festival's fine ideas are the solo recitals preceding each main concert. Musicians choose repertory—usually somewhat out of the mainstream—to which they feel personally close, and their advocacy makes for warm and persuasive performances. This time, these recitals also provided a showcase for two pianists making auspicious festival debuts. On Friday, Theodora Satolia shared an early work by Schumann—his rhapsodic Humoreske. Mostly nocturne-ish slow music, to which Satolia brought a seductive liquidity, the piece occasionally springs into quicker tempos. Here her playing was a little loose, perhaps, but always convincing.

On Sunday, Thomas Sauer chose Beethoven for his recital, playing the Bagatelle op. 33 no. 6 and the Pastoral Sonata. His rapport with these works, as a whole and with each detail, was intimate and affectionate in a way that recalled none other than Glenn Gould. Listen to a Gould recording, and you're witness to a highly personal one-on-one meeting of musician and music. Sauer's Beethoven, similarly, made eavesdroppers of the audience—a wonderfully moving experience.

The festival made a rare foray into post-WWII music (into post-WWI music, for that matter) on Sunday. The most thrilling aspect of George Crumb's 1971 Vox Balaenae ("Voice of the Whale") was its sheer idealism, the sonic stretch it asks of its players. Flutist Jody Schwarz and cellist Bion Tsang whistled and doubled on crotales, and even evoked underwater sounds with their instruments, while Anton Nel was kept busy with all kinds of inside-the-piano string work. The piece itself? Well, some of these moments were lovely, and some were corny. In other works, Crumb has been more successful in putting all his timbral means to expressive ends.

The festival's bread and butter has always been big romantic works—yet, frustratingly enough, it's just this repertory that yields the most variable results. To a suite by Korngold for piano lefthand (Nel), two violins (Scott Yoo and James Ehnes), and cello (festival director Toby Saks), the strings brought relentless gritted-teeth intensity, and I have no clue why. Could they really find no moments of expansiveness anywhere in the piece, no luxuriousness or repose? Their driven and constricted tone did enhance one movement (a gnomic scherzo titled Groteske) but how much more exciting this scherzo might have sounded had there been any tonal contrast between it and the introspective central section—or, for that matter, between it and any other movement. Such a monochromatic performance was a shame, considering Korngold's instrumental flair.

Following this, Satolia, Tsang, and violinist Scott St. John caught just the right note of folk-dance abandon in Dvo(breve)rák's Piano Trio in E Minor, without ever straining to make the trio grander or more imposing than the tuneful, ethnic-scented divertimento that it is. They combined passion and soulfulness with an affecting simplicity, and provided a fine example of the best the festival has to offer.

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