Gil Shaham’s double appearance at Tanglewood made a powerful statement: that he was the master of both ends of the spectrum of virtuosity, with the implication that every other challenge would fall somewhere in between. On the one hand, there was a visceral, mercurial, spontaneous and totally commanding performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto, a work whose technical challenges are so great that it was supposed to have been declared unplayable by its intended first performer.
Nelson Freire is a past master in multiple senses. His virtues as a pianist have been well-known for decades. But his playing brings to us hints of older school virtuosity, not only of his own generation (including his friend and musical partner Martha Argerich) but of even earlier schools of pianists, including the Hoffmann-Friedman-Rachmaninoff generation. He shares with those legendary virtuosi not only a technique that barely recognizes technical difficulties, but also a kind of sprezzatura, a slightly off-handed way of tossing off passages, runs, glittering ornaments, and the rest of the grand pianistic arsenal (or clap-trap, depending on your point of view) that others have approached with either gritty determination or a show-off’s urge to impress.
When I try to imagine how Lee Elman and Albert Fuller felt when they founded the Aston Magna Music Festival in 1972, I find myself somewhat awestruck. That was less than twenty years away from the very beginnings of the Early Music movement in the mid-1950s. When the invaluable Pristine Classical download site form historical recordings recently released Jascha Horenstein’s 1954 recording of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, a noted by Mischa Horenstein observed that the orchestra, assembled ad hoc in Vienna by Horenstein himself, included two great lights of historical performance, Nicolaus Harnoncourt, playing the viola da gamba, and Paul Angerer, playing viola solo, violino piccolo, harpsichord, and second recorder, in true Early Music style.
Like all the great institutions which are celebrating anniversaries this year, Aston Magna’s 40th anniversary season is much like any other. What better way to celebrate an important anniversary than to maintain the quality one has been known for and to reaffirm the founding principles? This year’s season, launched by gala events at Brandeis and at Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, will be rich in familiar repertory — Monteverdi, Purcell, Vivaldi, Telemann, the Bach family, and Mozart — and familiar faces: the violinist Daniel Stepner, the gambist Laura Jeppesen, harpsichordist John Gibbons, singers Dominique Labelle, Deborah Rentz-Moore, and William Hite. Of course Stanley Ritchie will be on hand. Some very distinguished artists will be joining them: keyboard players Peter Sykes and Malcom Bilson, and Eric Hoeprich, whose Glossa recording of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto I just now warmly praised in a review article—and this is only a few.
Inviting guest musicians Osmo Vänskä and Alisa Weilerstein to the Sydney Symphony makes an artistic match the muses approved of, not to mention the heavens. They only came for three performances in Sydney, and how they found time to rehearse this dense program thoroughly is a mystery to me, though a shared musical spirit and understanding seemed to be on their side in this performance. It was a rare conjunction of various uncontrollable elements. The program too is very interesting. The Sydney Symphony has found a ‘new’ Tchaikovsky piece, apparently never having played Voyevoda before, and has not played the Prokofiev sinfonia concertante for 40 years. Beethoven is always interesting (at the very least), but here we have a unique interpreter of his symphonies in Vänskä, who seemed even to find in Beethoven hitherto unheard connections to Prokofiev.
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra specializes in playing Baroque music on period instruments, though they often include earlier 16th and later 18th century music too, but for this program they have taken a cross section of late Baroque Italy and Germany selecting pieces all from the 1720’s and 1730’s (or in a similar style). They have also invited Roman violinist Riccardo Minasi to direct and conduct the orchestra with a program of interesting Vivaldi concerti as well as the much more obscure Jan Dismas Zelenka, who was only rediscovered around the middle of the last century, though his 300th birthday in 1979 passed without any celebration from the recording industry (according to Early Music). A Bohemian originally, Zelenka played double bass for the Dresden court orchestra, later composing for the royal chapel, then for a short while acting as Kapellmeister. The ABO plans to play a bit more of his music next year, a sample of his church music. They have also announced for their 2012 season Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo in concert, which is wonderful news for Sydney operaphiles who now at least have three operas to look forward to next year — L’Orfeo, Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades with Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony and the Pinchgut company’s production in December. Baroque music, especially in the serious and exuberant way the ABO plays it, is lively, vigorous and sanguine but without violence or forcefulness. In this way Baroque music has much to teach humanity of the 21st Century.
As Ryan Turner began his second season as Music Director of Emmanuel Music so ambitiously with Bach’s B Minor Mass, it seems a good time to reflect on this small, but extremely productive organization and its place in the Boston musical world. One of the most characteristic—and felicitous—aspects of classical music in Boston is the proliferation of these groups, often founded around a chorus, but featuring non-choral music as well, often cultivating a speciality in Baroque music, and often combining this with the music of Classical, Romantic, and contemporary composers. Boston is home to other groups that play Baroque music on period instruments, and some of these have achieved international reputations. At Emmanuel music of the eighteenth century and earlier is played on modern instruments in a style which conforms more or less with the performance practices developed in the postwar years by Günther Ramin and Kurt Thomas with the Thomanerchor at Leipzig, and extending to Fritz Lehmann and Karl Richter in Berlin and Munich—with roots in the reformed performances of the 1920s. This doesn’t mean that these musicians don’t listen to their historically informed colleagues. In Boston, it is pretty well impossible for them not to exchange ideas and to learn from one another. As compelling as period performances of Baroque masters are, there is one great virtue to modern instruments: the music can be performed as part of a tradition extending up to the present day. The musicians can perform Bach seamlessly amidst Brahms, Bruckner, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Vaughn Williams, or, say, John Harbison, Principal Guest Conductor at Emmanuel Music, who wrote an enlightening personal note on the B Minor Mass for this performance.