Music Mountain: the Triton Trio, William Purvis, Michae Lee, and Ani Kavafian play Mozart, Schumann, Brahms and Ligeti; preview of upcoming concert at Yale

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Music Mountain offers gift vouchers…and a reminiscence of Brahms, Ligeti, Schumann, and Mozart by the Triton Trio. William Purvis, Ani Kavafian, and Mihae Lee at Gordon Hall (Sept. 9, 2007), with preview of the concert, Dec. 11, 2007, in Morse Recital Hall in Sprague Hall, Yale University, 470 College Street, New Haven.

Music Mountain: the Shed with Sculpture, photo Michael Miller

A recent announcement by Music Mountain seems to be such an excellent idea for seasonal gift-giving, that I shall repeat it here, especially as it gives me an opportunity to reminisce about one of last summer’s very great concerts, a program of chamber music for violin, piano, and horn by the Triton Trio, founded in 2004 by William Purvis, his wife, Michae Lee, and Ani Kavafian. William Purvis, a member of the faculty at Yale and Juilliard and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, is surely of of the great musicians playing today. His mastery of his instrument is unmatched, and, with his lively interest in contemporary music, he is actively exploring the limits of the instrument and beyond. Unfortunately I was unable to write about it at the time, because The Berkshire Review for the Arts was then still in the assembly stage.

Music Mountain, one of the oldest and very finest summer chamber music festivals in the country, is offering advance ticket vouchers for the 2008 season. I can’t think of a better gift, with its months of warm anticipation and its substantial rewards at the end. It is also possible to make named donations in honor of friends and to make purchases of recordings from ArkivMusic, which will provide a donation to Music Mountain, which was founded in 1930 by Jacques Gordon, founder and first violinist of the Gordon String Quartet, with the primary mission of education through the performance of chamber music, specifically, the string quartet. This mission is realized by bringing together professionals, amateurs, adults and children, by developing new audiences and by providing access to the experience of live music. The festival is well known on radio through the broadcasts recorded live each season, which are sponsored by a local bookseller, Edward R. Hamilton.

At that unforgettable concert back in September Mihae Lee and Ani Kavafian began with an insightful and elegant performance of Mozart’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in E Flat, K. 481. William Purvis joined Ms. Lee for Schumann’s Three Romances for  Horn and Piano, Op. 94 of 1849. Mr. Purvis plays standing, which presumably gives him the physical freedom to create the extraordinary range of tone and expression of which he is capable. This is a free, discursive piece, and Mr. Purvis played it with such flexibility and freedom, that one could imagine it as the musical equivalent of an evening’s conversation by the fireside over port, rambling between intimate reminiscences, folk-tale, and an occasional lightening bolt of philosophical insight.

The core of the concert, however, was Brahms’ great Horn Trio in E flat Majorand the work it inspired from György Ligeti, his Hommage à Brahms of 1982. Mr. Purvis introduced both works with ample remarks about the circumstances of their composition and their intent. These introductions were far more substantial than the usual chat we’ve become used to hearing at chamber music concerts, a reflection of Mr. Purvis’ background in philosophy and his gifts as a teacher. This was as welcome in the Brahms as in the Ligeti, since, I believe, many people overlook what an unusual, even eccentric piece it is. Brahms wrote the trio for the Waldhorn, or natural horn, an instrument which was well on its way to obsolescence by 1865. Brahms played the instrument in his youth, and his mother’s death at the time he wrote the trio put him in an especially nostalgic mood. These personal associations, as well as his love for an instrument he knew well, inspired Brahms to go against the grain. This was a revelatory performance, inasmuch as these enlightened players refused to knock the edges off the music and to force it into a standard Romantic mold, in which the primary melodies, including the very beautiful and famous main subject of the first movement. When inner voices and transitional passages are allowed to speak freely, it becomes a quite a different piece. The vast range of tone all three musicians command, particularly Mr. Purvis’ softer sound, close to the human baritione and contralto, also brought out unfamiliar aspects of Brahms’ music.

I should apologize for bringing back a theme which has almost been obsessive in The Berkshire Review of the Arts of late, but the story is touching. Brahms was a great walker, and he conceived the theme just mentioned on a walk through the Black Forest, as Joshua Garrett recounts in his excellent dissertation on the work (supervised by Purvis and available online), “He later showed his friend Albert Dietrich the spot ‘on the wooded heights among the fir-trees’ where the theme first came to him. As he told Dietrich, ‘I was walking along one morning and as I came to this spot the sun shone out and the subject immediately suggested itself.’”

Mr. Purvis has been playing the Brahms Horn Trio together with the Ligeti for some time now, as he will in New Haven this coming Tuesday, together with Paul Lansky’s Etudes and Parodies in a concert not to be missed. The Ligeti trio, directly inspired by the Brahms, as it was written for the composer’s 150th birthday, has close references to it woven into its structure. In mood and sonority Ligeti, like Mephistopheles, roams all over creation, from heaven to hell, both its hot and cold circles, bringing his instruments, especially the violin and the horn to their extremes. This is truly great music, both in its dark and its radiant aspects, and I can see it becoming more and more established in the repertoire.

What the Yale audience cannot expect is Music Mountain’s broad sward of lawn by the music shed with its benches, its abstract sculptures, its snack bar with homemade pastries and sandwiches, and Edward Hamilton’s tent, filled with piles of intriguing second-hand books. When I was there, the prospect into the valley was pale in the haze. A lady told me I should see it on a really clear day. Next summer, I’ll go early and take a long walk in the woods.

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