The great chamber music laboratory six hours to the north, Marlboro Music, keeps a discreet profile. But every once in a while, the festival takes its act on the road, and we are able to hear interpretations in various stages of development.
Thursday night at the Perelman Theater, that meant a visit from an unnamed quartet of strings. You might have felt yourself rooting for the foursome appearing on this series. The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, Marlboro's sister organization, presents a full schedule of fully formed string quartets -- the venerable as well as the budding.
Thursday's group took on the hardest Beethoven and most-exposed Haydn. That they haven't reached fully realized interpretations was perhaps not unexpected. There are terrific individual strengths there -- in particular, Rebecca Albers (assistant principal violist of the Minnesota Orchestra). But real opinions, truths revealing something strongly believed about the intended character of the music, were elusive.
Their intensity rose with the arrival of tenor Nicholas Phan. He and pianist Lydia Brown joined the strings for Vaughan Williams' On Wenlock Edge, and this combination found meaning in the words of the song cycle: Brown's gusts of wind in the first song, the recurring bells of the fifth. Each song was granted its own atmosphere.
Phan's voice -- here as well as in five movements from Beethoven's Irische Lieder -- is a thing of wonder. He has a warm, centered basic sound that he shades in smart ways to sharpen meanings. He toggled back and forth between a warm vibrato and a timbre a good deal more bald but still beautiful. To Beethoven, he brought a slightly less formal sound.
As an ensemble, violinists Michelle Ross and Carmit Zori, cellist Alice Yoo, and Albers erred on the side of careful in Haydn's String Quartet in D Major, Opus 76, No. 5, Hob. III:79. Any performance of Beethoven's String Quartet in C Major, Opus 59, No. 3, Razumovsky, is a feat, and they managed quite well. But as for the mystery of the second movement, the elation of the last, and the startling contrast of the dire opening moments of the first with what comes next -- these sharper characterizations must wait for another day.