The Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival’s 31st season, under the artistic direction of William Ransom, is still in full swing with a full slate of performers on tap through their gala finale on August 12. The Albert Carlton-Cashiers Community Library was the venue for this repeat performance of the program performed on August 5 in Highlands. Artists Bertrand Giraud, piano, and Edoardo Catemario, guitar, were joined by the Linden String Quartet in an eclectic program of works which not only showcased the guitar, both as a solo and chamber music instrument, but also the fine musicianship of this young and vibrant string ensemble, one of the best I’ve heard. The concert was underwritten in part by Peter and Valerie Whitcup.

The Linden String Quartet members are Sarah McElravy and Catherine Cosbey, violins; Eric Wong, viola; and Felix Umansky, cello. For 2011-12 they hold the Ernst Steifel Quartet in Residence position for the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah, NY. The Quartet is also the Canton Symphony Orchestra’s Quartet-in-Residence, a program established to promote the arts of Classical music and quartet playing through a series of presentations in various elementary schools in the Northeastern Ohio area. They were the gold medalist and grand prize-winner of the 2009 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition, winner of the 2010 Concert Artists Guild Victor Elmaleh Competition, and laureates of the 9th Borciani International String Quartet Competition. They have received the prestigious 2011 A.N. and Pearl G. Barnett Fellowship (including a $25,000 award).

Italian born Edoardo Catemario is active internationally as a performer and master teacher. He studied guitar with Salvatore Canino, Antimo Pedata, José Tomás and María Luisa Anido. He has won several competition first prizes, including the prestigious “Andrés Segovia” guitar competition in Almuñécar (Granada) and in 1992 the Alessandria International Competition. He has recorded on several labels to critical acclaim and performs as a guest soloist around the world.

Bertrand Giraud holds both a Piano Diploma and Chamber Music Diploma from the Conservatory of Geneva, and a Vocal Accompaniment Diploma from the Paris Conservatory. He is the winner of the FLAME Competition and second-prize winner of the Chopin Piano Competition (Texas). He has recorded four CDs of both solo and chamber works to critical acclaim, performs internationally, and since 1998 is the Artistic Director of the Jean Françaix International Competition.

The program opened with Luigi Boccherini’s Quintet in D, No. 4 G. 488 “Del Fandango” for guitar and strings. The composer is known for his galante-style music, largely influenced by Haydn, and yet bearing his unique imprint, especially in his writing for the cello (he was an accomplished cellist). A prolific composer of chamber music, Boccherini composed over a dozen guitar quintets; many, such as this one, reflect the influences of Spain, his adopted country. This light and graceful three-movement piece was given a beautiful interpretation. The first movement, Pastorale, was played in gossamer tones with graceful ornaments and elegant restraint. The second movement, Allegro Maestoso, was lusty and folksy with some intriguing harmonics in the cello part. The final movement, Grave assai; tempo di Fandango, was, as the title suggests, a strongly characterized fandango where, again, the cellist got to show off, executing several downward glissandi, all the same notes but each one a different “shade.”  

The most unusual instrumental combination was heard in the Castelnuovo-Tedesco Fantasia for Guitar and Piano. To keep the balance in check, the piano lid was down and Giraud played generally with a light touch. The Fantasia suggested a free-form piece, and this one was in two sections — the first which opened to quiet chords in both instruments which gradually became more animated and included percussive effects with fingers and fingernails on the guitar. The second part opened with shimmering figures in the piano which gave way to a single melody, a set-up which didn’t suggest the intricate rhythmic passages (deftly executed) between the two instruments to come.

Just before intermission Catemario performed two standards from the guitar repertoire, Preludes No. 1 and No. 2 by Heitor Villa-Lobos. Catemario has an interpretive flair, aided by his massive hands and incredible dexterity, making any technical demands seem so easy. As an encore he tossed off the showpiece “El Colibri” (The Hummingbird) by Julio S. Sagreras, surely the guitarist’s equivalent to “The Flight of the Bumblebee.”

The heavyweight of the afternoon comprised the rest of the program after intermission. For some reason Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132 was substituted for the Dvořák: String Quartet in G Major, Op. 106. The Beethoven Quartet of 1825 is massive — well over 40 minutes — and as one of his last works, highly experimental. Its five movements frame the third slow movement, the spiritual heart of the quartet. Entitled “Heiliger Dankgesang” in response to Beethoven’s deliverance from an illness, it contains prayerful music as well as rapturous outbursts, deeply emotional music with an unpredictable trajectory. The quartet’s handling of this movement alone was one of the high points of the afternoon. They are expert at plumbing the emotional depths of any music they play, and seem to emerge from the spell they cast as if from a long journey to a far-away place. Thanks for taking us along with you. The music you make is truly transformative and awe-inspiring.