If you haven’t heard of the Karwendel Music Festival (KMF) in Mittenwald, Germany, don’t feel embarrassed, as it only had its inaugural season in 2016; you may, however, want to learn the name, as it seems headed to become a fixture among music festivals. Founded by vibrant young violinist directors, Xi Wang and Sven Stucke, the festival, which takes place in the latter part of August, has already enjoyed an auspicious start. According to the program notes for their recent New York recital, they’ve presented seven concerts, plus workshops, masterclasses, lectures, and panel discussions, “showcasing 10 internationally acclaimed artists and 18 fellows representing seven countries and four continents.” Perhaps just as meaningfully, they’ve awarded a €20,000 French violin bow made by Claude Thomassin to an outstanding alumna to use free for a year.
Ms. Wang is a persuasive spokesperson for the KMF mission, and she introduced their program by expressing the founders’ and directors’ desire to “give back” and help younger musicians, putting resources at their disposal. “We’ve been there,” she explained. It was striking to hear these words from a musician who seems so young herself!
Youthful vibrancy characterized the entire evening. Opening with just the first movement of the ever popular Café Music (for piano trio) by Paul Schoenfeld, violinist director Xi Wang joined pianist and KMF faculty member Javor Bračić and guest cellist James Kim to show they know how to put the “festive” in “festival.” It was saucy and stylish, just as it should be.
Following in extreme contrast to this jovial opening, but equally au courant was a solo cello work by Gerald Resch (b. 1975) entitled Al Fresco, inspired by the music of Syria and the beginnings of the Arab Spring in 2011. KMF Alumnus, Konstantin Bruns, played this tour de force to the hilt. The piece is improvisatory in feel, starting with a lone desolate pizzicato, inflected tonally to evoke sounds of the oud, and becoming powerfully rhapsodic with extended cello techniques, bending of pitches, glissandi, percussive strikes of the fingerboard and elsewhere, as well as foot-stomping. All of this was easily within the artistic range and abilities of Mr. Bruns, a highly imaginative performer, who also relates well to his listeners. Sensing their rapt attention as he tuned prior to the performance, he paused and quipped, “that is just the tuning.”
More traditional virtuosity followed in the form of Pablo Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen played by KMF alumna, Sarah Kuo with her excellent collaborator Javor Bračić. It was an engaging performance by an outstanding young violinist. She navigated the piece’s challenges with impressive ease.
Brahms’ Sonatensatz (Scherzo from the F.A.E. Sonata) followed, pairing up another excellent KMF alumna, violinist Rimma Benyumova, with Mr. Bračić. Ms. Benyumova plunged into the music with total immersion, and with just the intensity that the piece warrants.
After intermission we heard the Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, bringing Mr. Stucke, Ms. Wang, Mr. Kim, and Mr. Bračić returning to the stage with excellent violist Liyuan Liu. On paper, the Brahms is the perfect second half to any program; on this occasion, though, to these ears, it could have been more cohesive. As a disclaimer, for this reviewer, it is one of those hypothetical “desert island” pieces, so a less than ecstatic reaction may be explained by an excessively high bar.
To analyze what one wants in such a work, one wants first a burnished collective sound. Admittedly, that can take years for a string quartet to achieve, but without it, even the great works become a mere alternation of thematic turns by four soloists rather than a unified expression from a single musical heart – that of Brahms, here. Brahms composed this magnificent work as an organic entity – and the work’s several incarnations (including one for two pianos) support this. One probably should not even be thinking “what an excellent violist” (as one did here) more than one should think, “that pianist has a great left hand thumb.”
One heard four fine string players who had clearly done their homework and sorted out their respective thematic entrances, but the entrances were showcased at times so prominently (abetted by the others’ receding) – that it reminded one of a tap dancer stepping out of an ensemble for the center stage moment.
Speaking of center stage, one did want more from the pianist, and having the lid on the half-stick was not ideal. Having heard this pianist before in a highly successful debut, one can safely say that there should have been no problem in his matching the quartet in power – so perhaps some group decision was at play. At any rate, the bass of the piano can pair so beautifully with the cellist in this piece, sometimes as a growl, sometimes as a throbbing pulse – and one wanted more of these qualities. Instead, the upper strings dominated, and some sections were strident rather than voluptuous or powerful. In matters of tempo as well, the strings seemed to take flight without regard for the fistfuls of notes in the piano part, which thus at times seemed glossed over in haste. The work is just as exciting –actually more so – if allowed time to build the surges, waves, and peaks with substance and intensity. There was indeed excitement in a virtuosic sense, but there could have been more.
It may be unfair to set such a high bar for what was probably an ad hoc collaboration, assuming the quintet may have suffered some of the last-minute travel-related personnel changes that Ms. Wang mentioned in her opening words. One could only guess which program selections were affected by the visa woes of the three absent performers from China, but the very stress of such matters in a way makes the entire evening seem miraculous.
The group is, all in all, to be congratulated for such an evening of variety and brilliance. The audience seemed to agree, and a final standing ovation earned a reprise of the Scherzo from the Brahms Quintet. Kudos to all for their concert – and also for such an important undertaking as the Karwendel Music Festival.