in: Reviews

August 20, 2011

Fish and Fanfare in Wellfleet

by

David Griesinger photo

After three intense weeks, the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival wound up where it started, in Wellfleet’s Congregational Church. The artistic directors of the Festival, Jon Nakamatsu, pianist, and Jon Manasse, clarinetist, brought together and joined outstanding artists convening from widely different backgrounds and day jobs. And in keeping with the setting and occasion, they offered up both fish and fanfare the day after neighboring Provincetown’s Carnival Parade.

Schubert’s Quintet in A major (“Trout”), D. 667, almost always serves as a concert finale, but his time the spot was pre-empted by Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat Major, Op. 20, written by the young Beethoven about twenty years before the “Trout.” Both call for an ad hoc group of players: musicians who adapt with lightning speed, listen attentively, can fade into the background, come quickly to the forefront, and riff off one another. The players had a wonderful time doing just that, and the sold-out audience reaped the profits.

This Schubert is always challenging, given its “heavenly length,” long periods of repetition without much variation, and unusual combination of instruments: violin (Stephanie Chase), viola (Phillip Ying), cello (Rafael Figueroa), bass (Lewis Paer), and piano (Nakamatsu). The start was a bit tentative, but once the tempo was firmly established, it flowed well, although for my taste, long lyrical lines were sometimes obscured by flourishes that were jarring. The Andante that follows found Nakamatsu settling into an even, nuanced flow, with his colleagues following suit. After a fast, brilliant, and captivating Scherzo, the trout was served with a rich sauce that at times perhaps masked its subtle flavor. Following the opening statement by the strings, Nakamatsu decided he’d like things a little faster and more dramatic, but as folk on the Outer Cape understand well, good fish can be served many ways, and the meal did not suffer. The finale was exciting, but the Church was also getting very hot, and at one of Schubert’s exclamation points, some in the audience decided it was time for applause and intermission. Happily, the players demurred, smiled broadly, and took another few minutes to finish properly with perhaps their most brilliant playing.

With only two of three air conditioners working, windows were thrown open, fans were turned on, and the Beethoven that followed was accompanied by a distant siren and varied outdoor accompaniments. That was just fine, because the Septet could work well outside. With its six movements, it’s really a divertimento with six movements and several little fanfares. It won Beethoven considerable success and even caused Walt Whitman to give homage here. However, with the passage of time, Beethoven began to reconsider its worth. He offered it up to his publisher as fodder for rearrangements for different instruments and lamented the constant reference to its beauty, in contrast perhaps to the contemporaneous Op. 18 quartets in which he likely took far more pride.

The Serenade is a bit like Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, Op 56, for piano, violin, and cello; the soloists take their licks seriatim and then drift into choral anonymity. But what terrific soloists! For the Septet, three wind players, Judith LeClair (bassoon), Angela Cordell (horn), and Manasse, demonstrating collective intonation that was remarkable, joined the string players from the Schubert. The clarinet is prominent; Beethoven was perhaps following Mozart’s lead in promoting its character. So far as I am concerned, Manasse can do nothing wrong; his instrument sings, croons, shouts, and also disappears into a wind choir. LeClair has justly earned her fame as principal bassoonist of the New York Philharmonic for the past thirty years — she occupyed that chair at age 23! And while Cordell doesn’t play quite as quietly as some of the greatest masters of the horn, she blended well with her fellow wind players and was gruff in some of the amusing flourishes Beethoven reserves for her part. He would have loved that.

Nakamatsu again showed his mastery. I have already waxed eloquent about his playing Schumann at the Festival’s start with the Tokyo Quartet here. His “trout” was imaginative, with subtle phrasing and much tonal variety. There are pianists with more of the Schubertian “bell-like sound” such as Pressler, Brendel and, when I was growing up, Rudolph Serkin. But he’s right up there: brilliant runs with only occasional dropped notes in the marathon, a whispering pianissimo, elegant use of the pedal, and a left hand that brings out the bass strikingly.

And finally, the string players. Throughout the evening, Chase proved herself a remarkable musician. Her sound (playing a Peter Guarnerius of Venice that belonged first to her mother) had both edge and warmth, with a robust G-string, and she has total technical and musical command. In the Schubert she was lyrical, warm, and flexible. In some respects more difficult technically than the famed violin concerto, Beethoven’s writing for violin in the Sextet is tough, and she tamed it with virtuosity demanding penetration through dense underbrush. I heard several noteworthy violinists in Wellfleet this summer (Fedkenheuer, Kitchen, Beaver), but for overall musicality and command, she perhaps took first prize. Ying was offered lean fare; neither the Beethoven nor Schubert offered much opportunity for the viola to shine, and his modern Matsuda viola lacked breadth and complexity next to the Guarnerius. But his sense of rhythm is fine, as is his intonation. Figueroa, first cellist of the remarkable Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, who was playing a cello from the 1930s by the accomplished Parisians the Millant brothers, was superb. He has unusual ability to articulate notes within a legato line. He is flexible, alert, and a compelling soloist when the time comes; his dialogue with Chase in the “trout” variations was a high point of the evening. And bringing up the bass, Paer was also fine. Playing an instrument of uncertain provenance. (He told me it was either Italian or British and raised his eyebrows with a smile, knowing that its value doubles if someone can convince the next buyer that it’s at least part Italian…). His solos in the Schubert were just as they should be; his rhythm is rock solid.

A fine finale for a terrific season! Hopefully, the next eleven months will pass quickly…

Tom Delbanco is the Koplow-Tullis Professor of General Medicine and Primary Care at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital. An avid violinist since age nine, he has particular interest in the evolution of stringed instruments from the sixteenth century on.

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