in: Reviews

August 26, 2013

Vibrant Farewells in Wellfleet

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A visiting harpsichord displaced the customary piano in last Friday’s concert in Wellfleet’s First Congregational Church, marking an unusual end to this year’s Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival (CCMF). I am pleased to report that under the leadership of Martin Beaver, Elizabeth Mann, and Kenneth Cooper, complemented by 5 additional artists, the concert fully matched its flamboyant title, “The Spectacular Baroque.”

The evening opened with JS Bach’s Sonata in B Minor for Flute and Keyboard, BWV 1030. Debate abounds about several works coming down from that period in history. Were they by JS Bach? Were they directed toward the flute in their original incarnation? And who, if anyone, was to join the flautist? But for this one both autographed documentation and a fully realized harpsichord part exist, although it’s a bit confusing because there’s also a version of that part written in another key. I’ll leave it to musicologists to debate the fine points, but it’s pretty clear that in about 1735 this extraordinary sonata emerged in full bloom, and many argue that it’s Bach’s most beautiful (and most difficult) work for flute and harpsichord.

Mann, the founding first flute of Orchestra of St. Lukes, and Cooper, an eminent harpsichordist and pedagogue, played beautifully. The opening Andante is complex, long, and rhapsodic, with ritornello framing the constant surprises that mark Bach’s unique handwriting. The duo was a bit shaky early on, but soon all was in order, with Mann favoring a lean sound with appropriately spare vibrato, and Cooper providing a rock steady rhythmic pulse, while exhibiting judicious use of rubato on the seven-foot replica of a French double-manual harpsichord. Throughout the evening, he was a fully equal partner, pulling the listener in with his imaginative, improvisatory style that always respects the framework of the music. The second movement, marked Largo e dolce, unfurled with the musicians moving back and forth in a sinuous long line. And the third movement, with a fugal presto followed by a rapid dance, was replete with both humor and virtuosity. What a test for the flute, and listening to Mann was, dare I say, breathtaking.

Over the years the Tokyo String Quartet has given many performances on Cape Cod. This summer, though, the Festival has helped the players achieve a gradual deconstruction, sadly marking the end of the quartet’s very existence. With Greensmith, their cellist, and Beaver, their first fiddler, heading to the Colburn School in Los Angeles to lead the chamber music section, and Ikeda and Isomura, their inner voices, staying at Yale but also taking on important teaching roles in the Big Apple, each of its players bade farewell separately by participating in CCMF concerts throughout August. In this one, Beaver took on two different roles. In JS Bach’s Brandenburg #5, BWV 1050, he merged his violin with a small, elite ensemble. And then, after intermission, he pulled out his virtuoso chops and came close to knocking down the church with a bravura performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Op. 8, Nos 1-4.

These days, it’s not often that you hear JS Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg played by only 7 players, but given the way it was performed, you wouldn’t choose to hear it any other way.  Misha Rosenker, the violinist, produced a warm, nuanced sound that complemented Beaver’s more assertive playing, and Nardo Poy, the violist, matched Rosenker well, although Pamel Greitzer-Manasse, the cellist, was a bit diffident. She should have been seated further forward, but Jordan Frazier, playing the bass, helped fill in the lower lines beautifully. Beaver and Mann engaged in splendid dialogue, with the violinist limiting his vibrato, exhibiting immaculate intonation, and matching his sound to Mann’s elegant flute in a way that reflected his many years as a famed chamber musician. But here, just as Bach must have desired, Cooper stole the show. His harpsichord was by no means loud, yet the imagination with which he filled in the slow movement, and the way he let the first movement cadenza unfurl was memorable. He is a giant of a man, and it was fascinating watching him lean over the instrument and create an inexorable pulse, combined somehow with both imaginative flourishes and room to breathe. This Brandenburg performance was the musical high point of the evening.

One website I consulted offered 196 recordings of the Four Seasons. Some are directed toward weddings; others aim at young children; many have covers with singularly beautiful men and women holding violins; and some advertise intimate relationships with composers such as Piazzolla, with electric guitars, harmonicas, or with the genuine, “original” baroque.  So you take your choice. Beaver apparently decided both to return to his early days as a virtuoso soloist and also to invite his colleagues to have fun with him as their straight man. It worked well.

The Tokyo had to return their Stradivari instruments to Japan this summer, so Beaver played on his 1789 Nicola Bergonzi. Carlo Bergonzi made violins in Cremona in the first half of the eighteenth century, and some of his violins are close in quality to those by Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu. But his grandson, Nicola, made few that are known today. Created at the end of the Cremonese ascendancy for violinmakers, this one is a beauty, and Beaver brought out both its brilliance and multiple colors. He has an infinitely pliable bow arm, stunningly fast and accurate fingers, and he is a leader. He played the music pretty “straight,” with modest ornamentation, judicious use of vibrato, and there were some lovely softer passages without vibrato. To bring more color, he might have played even more quietly at times in the lively hall, but it was a spectacular performance, and it brought down the house.

What gave it unusual effect was the way his colleagues pitched in. Elizabeth Chang, the violinist, joined Rosenker in a supporting role, and the two of them provided both punch and nuance. Poy was terrific with his raucous commentary during the Largo of the “Spring” concerto, and Greitzer-Manasse had a fine time in active dialogue with Beaver at various points during the concerti, while Frazier provided a firm foundation combined with subtle rhythmic thrust. And again Cooper provided icing for the cake. In the Adagio of “Autumn,” while the muted strings played chords that are deadly in multiple recordings, he improvised in a way I wished would last for ever. And then, in the final Allegro of “Winter,” he virtually levitated, pounding his harpsichord so hard in the bass that one had to debate between gunshots or a drum roll. Sounds awful? Wrong. It was terrific.

So the harpsichord made a brilliant debut in the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival. Jon Nakamatsu and Jon Manasse, the artistic directors, should invite it back, along with the many splendid artists they assemble. I am told that this year the Festival sold more tickets than ever in the past. No surprise, judging from the excitement in last Friday’s farewell to summer.

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 16th century on.

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