Imaginative programming matched by imaginative performances marked a surprising and satisfying evening of solo piano music at Tannery Pond Concerts. There is a mini-vogue for Rameau’s keyboard music, originally written for harpsichord, but currently being performed on piano, offering virtuosi surprising opportunities to show off their chops. There are You Tube video performances by Grigory Sokolov, Alexandre Tharaud, Clément Lefebvre, and Kyu Yeon Kim. Playing harpsichord music on the piano is a long-standing practice, but with increased awareness of the originally intended instrument and its unpianistic characteristics (including razor-sharp attack, lack of graduated dynamics, ultra-transparent textures and absence of sustaining pedal) pianists have had to make strategic choices whether to emulate some of these traits or to ignore them and use the full resources of the modern piano to interpret the music in ways that would have been unimaginable to the composers. An interesting debate hinges on the question of whether this latter choice would have been unacceptable to the composers, or on the contrary, delightful.
Beethoven’s String Quartet op. 131 makes Horatios of us all. We stand by, we listen to prophetic greatness, we try to respond, but it eludes us. Hamlet tells us there are more things he could say if he had more time. Doesn’t this sound like the Quartet? In the midst of sublimity, Beethoven finds humor. And most Hamlet-like of all, the serious and the risible are jam-packed together, with no recovery time for the listener. The time is short. The Mirò Quartet made this doubly so. The performance had an irresistible forward motion. Even the great set of variations were fleet of foot somehow. Every time I hear this piece I am bewildered. They made it clearer. Partly it was a relentless energy, but mostly it was their ability to make even what silence there is in the piece forward leaning.
Over the past months chamber music lovers have found a few important changes in their universe, above all the retirement of the Tokyo String Quartet and David Finckel’s departure from the Emerson. Both of these developments made themselves felt in the summer festivals. The Tokyo played their farewell concert at Yale’s Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, where they have been a fixture for years. It was a characteristically unsentimental affair, although one could see that fans had travelled considerable distances to fill the Norfolk Music Shed on that stifling summer evening. The Emerson played at Tanglewood with their superb new cellist, the distinguished soloist and conductor, Paul Watkins, and David Finckel appeared at the South Mountain Concerts with his wife Wu Han and violinist Philip Setzer of the Emerson, marking his even busier schedule as a member of a duo and trio. Listen to my interview with David Finckel and Wu Han for a full account of the changes in his life.
The barn at Tannery Pond is particularly well suited to cello music — a kind of cello-within-a-cello, the musical equivalent to the old literary framing device, maybe. The instrument’s range and woody timbre are particularly appealing, even restful, resting on the ear’s most sensitive range of pitches, so it is no wonder cellists seek out such acoustics, or do things like making arrangements for 6, 8, or 10 cellos. In fact listening in the Tannery barn gives one the overwhelming urge to make music in it, even if just laying down a few purple chords on the piano — in that way perhaps Rachmaninoff is particularly well suited to the barn too. The audience did seem thrilled by Haimovitz’s and O’Riley’s playing of the young Rachmaninoff’s sonata in G minor. Rightfully enough, it was the sort of full blooded and full bodied (figuratively speaking, the musicians bodily movements were in fact very restrained) interpretation of Rachmaninoff that doesn’t spoil easily. They did take certain risks, though, over and above those of choosing such unplayable chamber music, O’Riley especially coming into his own in this sonata, which is really more of a duet between equals. His piano style seemed more at home with this kind of music than pure accompaniment, which is an art in itself, partly because he seemed more easy with the dynamic of two equals playing together, something sounding more like a trio or a contrapuntal quartet.
Every Tannery Pond season includes a recital by at least one young musician of exceptional talent. Christian Steiner is especially excited about the twenty-one-year-old Taiwanese-American violinist Paul (Chun-Wen) Huang, who will playing at the Tannery on July 14, with another excellent young musician, pianist Jessica Osborne.
By now everybody knows that the renowned Tokyo String Quartet will retire at the end of the 2012-13 season. The quartet was founded in 1969 at the Juilliard School of music by graduates of the Toho School of Music in Tokyo, where the founding members had studied with Professor Hideo Saito, who left a profound mark on their approach to music. They came to New York for further study with members of the Juilliard String Quartet. Since then, as one of the first Asian performing groups to acquire an international reputation, they have not only set the example for Japanese musicians in the world at large, they have set an international standard for chamber music playing and the string quartet in particular. The extraordinary efflorescence of string quartets today doubtless owes much to their example. Their playing has been distinguished by its beauty of tone, accuracy of intonation, and precision of ensemble, but, for all this perfection, they never fail to project a fully thought-out and felt conception of the composer’s intentions and the inner content of the music. Their playing is never dry, detached, or emptily virtuosic, and I have never left one of their performances feeling they had failed to go the limit with the music at hand.
On the day following her amazing recital with Katherine Chi at Jordan Hall, Paula Robison and I met at the house she shares with her husband, Scott Nickrenz, with its bird’s eye view of Frederick Law Olmsted’s house and garden. In the hour or so we talked we covered a lot of ground: the concert, her preparations for it, and some of the music she played…we talked about Sidney Lanier, the poet, linguist, and self-taught flute virtuoso, who died at 39 of tuberculosis contracted as a Confederate prisoner of war, and Charles T. Griffes, who died at 35 of the same disease, leaving behind a remarkable body of exploratory compositions, Paul Taffanel, the founder of modern flute playing and the teacher of Ms. Robison’s teacher, the great Marcel Moyse.
I get in my little car, and I go to marvelous things. My favorite is the Mohawk Trail Concerts. This marvelous series, run by Ruth Black, was for years the summer destination of the great Jan DeGaetani, and still boasts yearly visits from Joan Morris and William Bolcom. At various times I have heard the Fiordiligi who was singing Don Giovanni with James Levine at Tanglewood, a young woman who was sitting principal cellist later in the summer for a great performance of the Alpine Symphony with Charles Dutoit and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and major artists like Carol Wincenc. I have never heard a bad concert in this venue. The structure itself is a small church in the hamlet of Charlemont, Mass. Everything about the concert is informal. Mrs. Black speaks elegantly before each concert. One feels like one is at home. There is an almost bewildering variety to the series. It is not expensive. This summer I heard an all-too-rare performance of Fauré’s piano quartet, Op.15 played by an old friend, John van Buskirk and the other members of the La Belle Alliance trio. This was limpid, detailed playing with an acute sense of the quick-changing affect Fauré’s music possesses, early or late. The trio made these shifts, like the shifts in thinking itself, into a consistent rhetoric that showed me how neglected this masterpiece is. It was an unaffected performance, which I was able to hear from about ten feet away. When you go, take note of a magnificent elm tree just across the street from the church. The elm is majestic. The church is humble. Hearing music in these concerts is a real experience, not a media event.