in: Reviews

July 19, 2011

The Breakers Piano Breaks Instrumental Balance

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The Great Hall of the Breakers (Christopher Greenleaf photo)

The durable Newport Music Festival, now in its forty-third season, is halfway through a rich offering of some fifty-seven concerts over two-and-a-half weeks. Some of these are in settings of architectural opulence that only Newport, among North American urban places, can offer in such richness and brick-cheek-by-marble-jowl proximity. The most prodigious and grandiosely appointed of these mansions, The Breakers (designed by Richard Morris Hunt in 1895 for the  short-lived mogul Cornelius Vanderbilt, was where we came to hear Brahms on a blessedly breezy, almost cool weekend night.

In the vast building’s Great Hall, on a stage at the foot of the grand staircase, waited a Yamaha concert grand. Open doors and some of the great windows admitted welcome fresh air to an extent I had never before encountered at this festival. The sizable audience made their accustomed leisurely appearance, and the final concert of four on July16 began not long after the unusual hour of 9 p.m.

Russian-American violoncellist Sergey Antonov and Ontario-born pianist Bernadene Blaha sailed into one of Johannes Brahms’s incomparable masterpieces, his second-movement contribution to the famed “F.A.E.” Sonata in a. Robert Schumann, Brahms, and Schumann pupil Albert Dietrich composed one movement each of this violin sonata in 1853 as a gift for Joseph Joachim, for the already acclaimed violinist’s twenty-second birthday. The letters stand for “frei aber einsam,” a phrase closely associated with the circle around Schumann. It proclaims the Romantic artist’s “free but lonesome” status, if I may filch Dolly Parton’s charming idiom. As this is originally a work for violin and piano, we heard a transcription of the Scherzo in c (Allegro – Trio: Più moderato) by Antonov. So fervid and intense was the energy the duo brought to bear on this full-blooded miniature that they left little room for the listener to relax into the intricate Brahmsian cross-rhythms and usually light-footed lyrical hand-offs. The reception was enthusiastic, but I felt that the score had suffered a mauling.

The same intensity — in fact, precisely the same intensity — settled over the three  movements of the Violoncello Sonata No. 1 in e, Op. 38, composed in 1862-65.  Antonov’s exceptionally centered, beautiful, and focused sound is undeniably fetching, and his musical intentions are invariably clearly defined. He calls on the dark power of the lower reaches of his (unfortunately unnamed) instrument to splendid effect and does so with subtle variations of color and horsepower, not to mention the supreme ease with which he entices tone of from all of this lovely cello’s regions. Blaha, a secure and dynamically uninhibited player, provided both a balanced piano counterfoil to the cello part and the kind of flexible but structurally rock-solid meter that makes Brahms’s extraordinary compositional architecture vibrate and connect. She was, however, poorly served by the piano, as was the composer, about which more. A highlight of the performance was the finely judged and passionately prosecuted piercing of the cello part through urgent, full-voiced broken piano chords in the second movement, Allegretto quasi menuetto – Trio.

After the lengthy Newport pause, cellist and pianist returned for the Violoncello Sonata No. 2 in F, Op. 99 (1886), one of those magical chamber works whose palpable ties to an earlier German Romantic idiom infuse it with a warmth and sweetness more characteristic of 1860s Brahms. In the joyous first movement, the two instruments’ impassioned surgings among keys related to the work’s nominal tonality (A, f#) set the listener up — barely — for the startling F# tonality of the second movement (Adagio affetuoso). After this soundscape subsided briefly into calm f-minor regions, we heard the striking quasi-scherzo, also in f. And so back to the comparative leggerezza of the key of F in the shortish conclusion. Throughout the four movements, I vainly awaited emotive, expressive evolution of Antonov’s beautiful but unwaveringly intense projection. Blaha’s deft, tasteful playing at times verged on the loud, but it must have been challenging for her to do battle with this particular piano.

I have encountered musically satisfying concert grands by Yamaha. This particular gleaming brute, however, was no pleasure to listen to, especially in scores that require subtlety, color, variety of sound, and transparency. Its chill, colorless clangor was apparent even in pp moments. When asked, as it rather too frequently was, to produce forte dynamics, its already white-hard ugliness grew constricted and harmonically confusing. Antonov’s considerable presence and easy power managed to slice through nearly all of the painful din of the piano, but the composer’s vibrant harmonic language crumpled before the chordal onslaught. The appearance of nine-foot concert grands on stage is de rigeur today, especially for highly visible events, yet we would do well to keep in mind Brahms’s gentle insistence, in his lifetime, on slightly less imposing pianos for all of his piano scores except the two solo concerti. For the cello, the composer-sanctioned instrumental balance is magic, though this goes against the spirit of our less subtle, willfully grandiloquent age.

This, then, was an evening overflowing with intensity. For those attuned to the wide range of instrumental possibilities, it was deeply frustrating to hear three beloved scores compromised by the timbral monochromaticism and arctic din of the brutal piano. There were memorable Brahmsian moments, great sweeping collaborative arches within movements, but I have too many well-balanced, tonally magnificent performances of these two heavenly sonatas in my inner ear, on disc and live, not to have actively and ceaselessly wished that the fine, enduring Newport Music Festival had contracted for a piano capable of doing well by these scores. I would gladly hear Bernadene Blaha and Sergey Antonov play together once more, under kinder circumstances.

A final note, if I may. Compendious though the 140-plus pages of the Festival book, accomodating all fifth-seven  concert programs, there is next to no information about the works performed. Even or especially with familiar scores like those above, it is a bit puzzling not to have at least a loose sheet with modest annotations. That’s unfortunate additional work for a small, hard-pressed staff, but without the intellectual welcome extended by such notes, how do we invite those hovering on the edge of an active interest in classical music to hop firmly on board?

Veteran recording engineer Christopher Greenleaf collaborates with chamber, early, and keyboard musicians in natural acoustic venues on both sides of the Atlantic. His principal mission is recording surviving historic instruments and their successful copies in supportive, affectively engaging acoustics. He is active as a writer, translator, photographer, and acoustic consultant.

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