The Huntington Estate Music Festival is always an experience. The concerts are held in the Huntington Estate barrel shed, with rows of wine-filled oak barrels behind the players, while meals, which are served in the garden, are all part of the price and the event.
The programme for the opening weekend of this year’s Festival contained at least five undoubted masterpieces – the three Op. 59 quartets of Beethoven (known as the Razumovsky Quartets), the Chaconne for solo violin by Bach, and that outburst of youthful genius, the Octet for Strings by Mendelssohn.
The Quartets Op. 59 Nos 2 and 3 were played by the Goldner String Quartet, which has played many times in Huntington. Op. 59 No 1, the longest in the series, was played by the visiting Danish String Quartet, which performs more frequently in the US than anywhere else. Both groups played these works in the same, forceful, modern manner – brisk tempi, forceful dynamics, opulent tone. This was real virtuoso playing and, despite this extrovert approach, the players never allowed their tone to coarsen. Indeed, the Danish group was remarkable in the slow movement of Op. 59 No 1 for the unanimity and smoothness of its legato playing. Only in the slow movement of Op. 59 No 2 did the forceful approach not succeed. Finally, at the end of the second concert, both quartets played the Mendelssohn Octet with brilliant virtuosity, much to the delight of the audience. Indeed, the audience was enthusiastic throughout both concerts.
It is no reflection on the quartet players to say that the star of the concerts was the Russian-American pianist Olga Kern, outstandingly glamorous in dazzling multi-coloured dresses – a different one for each performance. On the first day she played a selection of Rachmaninov Preludes and Scriabin Études with sensational aplomb, accuracy and virtuosity. And her large hands made mincemeat of the notorious difficulties in Balakirev’s Islamey. It is a long time since I have heard – or seen – anything like this.
The next day Kern demonstrated her flexibility by adopting an intimate, chamber music style to accompany the Canadian violinist Alexandre Da Costa in Brahms Sonata in D Minor Op 108. Both artists gave a perfect account of this difficult work. It was therefore surprising to me that Da Costa gave a less than perfect account of the Chaconne, which has a claim to be the greatest piece of music ever written. His tempi were too fast, the rhythm was not always steady and the different moods of the successive sections of the work were not conveyed. There was also some inelegant double-stopping.
Altogether though, the weekend provided an extremely enjoyable mixture of music, food, wine and rural living.