Summer in New England can be a time of violent storms, and the one that passed through the region on July 21 gave nature the opportunity to offer a particularly impressive and virtuosic display of thunder and lightening. Summer in New England is also a time for music festivals, including the Newport Music Festival — one of the most interesting. I attended two of its concerts yesterday, and the performers inside the halls matched the power and virtuosity of Ms. Nature outside, stroke for stroke.
The first concert, at 4 pm in Ochre Court, featured music by Russian composers. I’ll use their full names here, as they were listed in the program book: Anton Grigoryevich Rubinstein, Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky, Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev, Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin, César Cui, and Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov. The concert opened with a performance of Rubinstein’s Cello Sonata no. 2 in G Major, op. 39 by the Czech cellist Jirí Bárta and Spanish pianist Daniel del Pino. Rubinstein was one of the great virtuosos of the 19th century, a powerhouse of a pianist and an indomitable force in the music world. I wish he could also be counted among the great pianist-composers of the era, such as his contemporaries Hummel, Liszt and Grieg, or his Russian successor Rachmaninoff. He cannot. The Rubinstein cello sonata is, to be frank, a second-class composition, but this did not stop Bárta and del Pino from giving it a first-class performance. Bárta’s sound is rich and big, and his intonation excellent (no mean feat, considering the heat and humidity that sat on the performers and their instruments like a wet sponge). Del Pino’s piano playing is equally virtuosic, and we had a chance to hear further proof of it after intermission, when he gave a vivid performance of a little-known Scherzo by Mussorgsky.
The remainder of the concert also featured unfamiliar repertoire. Indeed, one of the great virtues of the Newport Music Festival is its penchant for adventurous programming, and this concert was no exception. Here we heard little-known songs by the Russian group known as The Mighty Five (i.e., Mussorgsky, Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, and Rimsky-Korsakov), and they were a revelation. So was the singing of the Russian-born baritone Anton Belov, supported in every detail by the excellent pianist Michael Endres. Belov boasts of a large and lyrical baritone; this, and his expressive interpretations of the poetry and winning personality made this performance a delight. Particularly memorable was his realization of Balakirev’s evocation of authentic cantorial incantations in the song The Jewish Melody. If this performance is any indication, Belov’s star is one to watch.
After dodging lightning bolts and monsoon downpours in search of a restaurant, we made our way to the Breakers for the evening concert at 9 pm. Drying off in Mr. Vanderbilt’s architectural splendor, a space that would have made a Medici feel right at home, we were treated to another superb concert by two more bona-fide virtuosos: the Russian cellist Sergey Antonov and the Canadian pianist Kevin Fitz-Gerald. The high point for this reviewer was Samuel Barber’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, op. 6, a work written in 1932 and premiered in 1933 with the cellist Orlando Cole at a concert of the League of Composers in New York City. Barber deserves to be counted among the great American composers, such as Ives, Copland, Piston, Bernstein and Carter. But except for the iconic Adagio for Strings, much of Barber’s music, with its personal mixture of lyricism and conservative modernism, remains neglected or rarely performed. It was therefore gratifying to see that the hundredth anniversary of Barber’s birth was being celebrated at Newport, and that one of his early compositions, the cello sonata, was performed with skill and commitment by two excellent young musicians.
I should add that this year’s festival began on an extremely sad note. Mark P. Malkovich, III, the guiding force behind the Newport Music Festival for 35 years, died in a car accident on May 30. Fortunately, the Festival, in form and spirit, is now in the hands of his son, Mark Malkovich, IV, who will surely maintain its standards and continue to raise them higher. The Festival continues through July 25 — and we look forward to next year.