Winston-Salem’s intimate Reynolda House proved to be ideal for the second Saturday Foothills Chamber Music Festival concert on August 16. The focus of this program was melody. Two violinists emerged for the first three solo pieces. Margaret Soper Gutierrez requested that all applause be withheld in order to bring out the common melodic features of the 18th century, contemporary and early 20th century works. She exhibited a warm, full tone, excellent intonation, and smooth, even bowing and phrasing in the Allemande from the Second Partita in D Minor by J.S. Bach. Andrea Schultz displayed equal technical skill and sweet tone in “Songs of Solitude” by John Harbison. These were composed in 1985 as a present for the composer’s wife, Rose Mary, who gave the premiere the next winter. In his signed program note, the composer describes these four pieces as being “songs, not sonatas or fugues. The first song often returns to its initial idea, always to go a different way; the constant lyrical outward flow is balanced by a refrain line that occurs twice. The second song begins with a folksong-like melody, which is immediately answered by a more athletic idea in a key a half step higher. The most intense piece is the third song, its melody carrying large intervals and leading toward increasingly brief and intimate reflections upon itself. The last song is the most virtuosic and intricate. Starting from a slow emblem, which is often restated, it begins a dance with an obstinate lower voice as accompaniment.” This is a wonderful work that ought to be programmed more often; the last song certainly gives the soloist ample chances to shine. Both violinists blended beautifully in two flavorful selections from Béla Bartók’s Romanian Folk Duets (1931), which gave ample examples of the composer’s field researches in folk music.

Violinists Gutierrez and Schultz were joined by cellist Benjamin Wolff and violist Elizabeth Oakes for music by Purcell and Haydn. The violinists alternated as first chair. Two selections from Henry Purcell’s 15 Fantasies, originally for viol quartet, were played, with Schultz leading. Wolff explained that the composer treated all four instruments equally, so part of the fun is figuring what is going on – Purcell didn’t hesitate to start a melody in one voice and continue it in another. These were written for a chest of viols, already becoming obsolete, and the program notes state that, like Bach’s Art of Fugue , “they include almost every kind of imitation, canon, invention and augmentation… invest(ed) with an intense emotionalism that is achingly beautiful and deeply affecting to this day.” Considering the evening’s high humidity, the sound of an actual viol consort with gut strings could have been vile. The quartet managed to create a fine blended sound that evoked the sound world of viols.

Gutierrez soared on the wings of melody as she led the most intimate and satisfying performance of Haydn’s beloved Quartet in D, Op. 64/5 (“The Lark”), that I have yet heard. The tempos and phrasing were totally convincing, the two violinists’ sweet tone blended unusually well, and the lower strings were strongly characterized. The closeness of audience and players contributed to the sense of a conversation overheard… the chamber music ideal.

One of Robert Schumann’s unquestioned masterpieces, the Quintet in E-flat for Piano and Strings, Op. 44, ended the evening, and the performance had all the virtues ascribed to the Haydn quartet. Festival co-founder Rachel Matthews was the pianist, and Schultz took the first chair. The Steinway piano’s lid was fully up but Matthews kept the balance close to ideal, projecting an unusually crisp and clear articulation of the keyboard part. The festival benefits from a stable core of players who are active chamber musicians. They are familiar with the repertory, but since they have not had to play many numerous repeats of a given program, like well-known touring groups, they bring freshness to their interpretations. Along with Brahms’ Third String Quartet, Schumann’s Quintet must be high on all violists’ dream lists since that inner voice is given so many opportunities to play prominent lines. Oaks’ large viola had a warm and plangent sound that projected very well. Her blending with second violin Gutierrez was a delight. The strongly distinguished sounds of Wolff’s cello and Oaks’ viola brought a special and highly individual quality to this performance. The last two movements were especially satisfying, having an ideal mix of controlled abandon and certainly no lack of rhythmic drive.

Incidentally, two of the musicians play together regularly. Gutierrez, for many years a member of the National Art Gallery String Quartet, is now the second violinist in the Maia String Quartet, in residence at the University of Iowa, and Oaks is the quartet’s violist.