IN: Reviews

An Enticing Spanish Mix

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The six-year-old Halcyon Music Festival, founded by pianist and Artistic Director Heng-Jin Park, makes its home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a small city with a vibrant arts scene which stands at a convenient crossroads for Maine and Massachusetts. The festival is presenting seven diverse programs between June 20th and 29th, sharing the talents of over 20 gifted artists from around the U.S. and abroad. On Friday, June 21st, “The Colors of Spain,” offered a fairly rare opportunity to experience the chamber music of some Spanish composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who are better known for their solo piano pieces and, especially, their vocal works.

Joaquín Turina (1882-1949), while studying in France with Vincent D’Indy, composed a piano quintet (his first published composition) which showed strong French influence, to the dismay of his older compatriots, Isaac Albéniz and Manuel de Falla. Perhaps this remained on his mind when he created his Piano Quartet, Op. 67, many years later; while it has occasional whiffs of France, its Spanish genesis is continually evident. The performers—violinist Robyn Bollinger, violist Jessica Thompson, cellist David Hardy, and pianist Lolita Lisovskaya-Sayevich—gave us a polished but passionate account of this accomplished work. In the first movement, marked Lento—Andante mosso, we could savor sunny warmth and joy alternating (sometimes rather suddenly) with brooding melancholy as well as passion followed by languor. The lively second movement scherzo was replete with flavorful harmonies and put a spotlight often on the piano in the outer sections and on the strings in the introspective trio. The final movement, introduced by a keening figure from the violin and emphatic chords in the lower strings, was the most dramatic, demanding both technical prowess and sensitivity to its volatile moods and colors. The musicians clearly enjoyed these challenges and were particularly impressive in an extended passage of unison string-playing, with only the piano supplying the harmony. The inflections of tempo were subtle but telling in their unanimity. The artists persuasively advocated for a fine piano quartet that ones hopes will become standard repertoire. 

In the Carmen Fantasy of Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908), grand showpiece based on themes from  Bizet’s famous opera, violinist Irina Muresanu and pianist Lolita Lisovskaya-Sayevich teamed up cohesively, but in truth, the work’s primary purpose is to display the violinist’s tremendous technique and, secondarily, to pay homage to Bizet’s talent for recreating Spanish colors in a French opera. Sarasate and Muresanu both possessed the gift of reproducing the personalities of the different scenes of the opera even amid large amounts of virtuoso accretions and ornamented melody. The opening Aragonaise swaggered confidently with generous helpings of glissandi, harmonics, pizzicati, double stops, etc. Since the solo line began in the violin’s low register, it also suggested cante jondo, the “deep song” characteristic of flamenco. Carmen’s well-known Habanera perhaps made the starkest contrast with the simplicity of the opera aria, and the brisk tempo rather better suited the showy concert fantasy than a genuine habanera, but its teasing rubatos still suggested Carmen’s coquettishness. So too did the short evocation of the scene in which she quietly mocks Zuniga, ending on ethereal harmonics. The Seguidilla encompassed both unadorned vocal lines and technical fireworks but retained the feeling of a dance. The closing section, depicting Carmen, Frasquita, and Mercédès entertaining Zuniga and other officers, relentlessly accumulates energy, beginning in long chains of thirds in the violin and becoming ever more pyrotechnical. If Muresanu’s intonation occasionally wandered slightly, her technical brilliance was never in question, and with accomplished support from Lisovskaya-Sayevich, she brought down the house.

A solo cello replaces the singer in Canciones populares españolas (Spanish Folk Songs). Unlike the previous work, Falla’s songs seldom change the original vocal lines more than adding an extra verse to most songs to let the cello repeat the melody an octave higher. Equal collaborators, cellist Alexei Gonzales and pianist Heng-Jin Park, brought this music to vivid life. With words, of course, a singer can make clear what the songs are about, but these instrumentalists did a good job of recreating the mood of each. Canción, for example, was merry, depicting a sub rosa romance: joyful without being overt. Asturiana was palpably a lament, with Gonzales spinning a very moving song on the muted cello over Park’s quietly pulsing piano part. Nana was unmistakably a lullaby, played with tender warmth and rare beauty. When sung, the concluding Polo is a classic example of cante jondo wherein the singer at several points literally employs “deep song” (i.e., chest register) as she curses love and the man who made her understand it. Though a cello’s change of register doesn’t reproduce the change of color that a similar vocal shift entails, the artists made the narrator’s pain and anger come through clearly in this electrifying performance.

St. John’s Church Portsmouth, NH

Like those of his compatriots, the songs and solo piano works of Enrique Granados (1867-1916) —most famously his Goyescas, inspired by the paintings of Goya are thoroughly imbued with the colors and rhythms of Spain. However, his Piano Quintet, Op. 49, displayed less consistent Spanish flavor than the other works we heard, its musical language being more typical of late French Romantic music à la César Franck or Ernest Chausson, though not avoiding Hispanic touches. Certainly, those French composers took inspiration from Richard Wagner to a significant degree, and Granados didn’t resist his influence altogether. First violinist Monica Pegis, second violinist Emma Frucht, violist Melissa Reardon, cellist Thomas Kraines, and pianist Heng-Jin Park guided us with expertise and sensitivity through another Spanish chamberwork that should be more familiar. Though the first movement wasn’t especially lengthy, it operated on a big scale in terms of dynamics and emotions while still sharing Turina’s alternation of exultation and gloom. The sensitive and delicate playing of the musicians brought out not only the quiet mourning of the second movement but also warmed us with the major-mode second melody. The pianissimo muted strings and piano created a rapt ending to this section. The closing movement was the largest and most varied. After a slow introduction the players launched into a relentless moto perpetuo that somewhat recalled the driving energy of Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy. This relaxed for a time into a more reflective theme shared by the first violin and viola before returning. Several times Granados seemed to be summing up and about to conclude only to relax again, in order to build back up. Ultimately, after some dazzling playing, the movement’s first theme reappeared for a resounding ending.

The Halcyon Festival, with a large roster of fine musicians, has found an excellent venue at St. John’s Episcopal Church whose sanctuary is good-sized, acoustically responsive, and clear.  The festival offers an enticing mix of the familiar and the “should-be-familiar” in excellent performances. Long may they prosper!

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.

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