IN: Reviews

No Strings for Aston Magna

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Frank Kelley (BMint staff photo)

Aston Magna’s concert at the Hudson Area Library yesterday proved atypical in several ways. The three performers included no string players at all, although Music Director Daniel Stepner, a violinist, turned pages for the pianist. The venue was new, a huge and most impressive library repurposed from an armory. A Schubert song cycle occupied most of the program, and although tenor Frank Kelley often frequents Aston Magna shows, I believe pianist Joshua Rifkin may have been making his Aston Magna debut. Rifkin is a celebrity, although for quite different types of performance like playing Joplin rags and conducting Bach choral works.

Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin, though undoubtedly one of the great creations in the entire Lieder repertory, sometimes troubles me with all those strophic songs with so much repetition. Kelley and Rifkin’s experience certainly showed in this outing. The variety of Kelley’s approach matched the variety of Rifkin’s sound and expression. This cycle goes from amusement to deep despair, and these performers took me along with them, despite the strophic nature.

Years ago I heard a lecture-demonstration by Malcolm Bilson, in which he compared two different fortepianos with a modern piano on one stage. I remember hearing him say that he felt the composer who benefitted most from using the early piano was Schubert. The rapid decay of sound from a wood-framed piano, among other things, clarifies Schubert’s rapid changes of mood and harmony. This performance made his point: Rifkin could play out full strength without swamping the singer. Kelley’s light Irish tenor is an entirely suitable instrument for this music, especially as he uses it with great control and a wide range of expression. He could sing whisper-soft without disappearing. Hiss light Irish tenor is an entirely suitable instrument for this music, especially as he uses it with great control and a wide range of expression. In its emotional honesty and musical comprehension, this moved tremendously, the rapid evolution of expression in “Die liebe Farbe” being but one example. Aston Magna helped the audience by providing a full, and lucid, English translation of the texts.

In the pre-concert talk, hornist Todd Williams demonstrated the virtues and difficulties of his natural horn. Producing a scale on this instrument results in sometimes drastically different, tonal qualities note to note. No doubt Beethoven, who could still hear when he wrote his Horn Sonata, Op. 17, exploited these differences, even though he composed this piece in two days. Williams is a phenomenon. If, not quite flawless (that would be impossible with this super-difficult instrument), he nevertheless impressed with accurate and gratifying musicality. He balanced with Rifkin’s fortepiano superbly, and Rifkin tossed off some of Beethoven’s virtuosic writing with flair.

The three performers then came together for Schubert’s “Auf dem strom,” which, like the Beethoven, was intended for this type of horn. (So, I read, was Brahms’s Horn Trio!) Again we heard excellent balance, and all three imbibed deeply in the expression of this wonderful, rare song. I was waiting for Williams’s playing of the quite low notes which end the piece. I knew he’d ace them!

BMInt reviewed an earlier performance by the two artists HERE

Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.

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  1. I can’t argue with anything Gerber has to say about this concert. We heard it last night in Great Barrington and loved it. But for me the thrill was realizing that I could have taken dictation of the German texts, so clear was Frank’s diction. A great evening of music-making.

    Comment by Jaylyn — August 4, 2019 at 6:26 pm

  2. I heard this program on the Thursday night performance at Emmanuel Church in Boston. The pre-game show in Boston was MC’d by Dan Stepner, who left room both for Todd Williams to talk about natural horns and for the gentleman who built the fortepiano to talk about what he did. I unfortunately arrived too late to catch his name, and stepped into his remarks mid-stream, but I gather that he sought to build a fortepiano using materials that would have been common in the 1820’s (wood frame, wood sounding board, no metal though I’m not sure what he used for the strings), but that he didn’t seek to copy the designs of the piano builders of the time (Broadwood or Bösendorfer or Streicher et al). So the construction of the piano reflected what we have learned about how to make a piano sound good today, but without modern materials. The upshot is that the piano didn’t have the jangly, brittle sound that an 1820’s Broadwood or Bösendorfer would have had, but rather a beautifully rounded, mellow tone. And yet, the decay was fast enough that Rifkin could be playing full throttle and Kelley could be singing in the barest of whispers, and you could still make out the singing and the text clearly.

    Full disclosure: I have been studying voice with Frank for some 15 years, and Die schöne Müllerin was one of the first big projects that he guided me through to performance. So I can’t do an impartial review of the program. I can say, though, that I kept noticing multiple little subtle inflections, ways that one strophic verse repeat would be sung at a slightly different tempo, or a slightly different word stress, or one word would stick out from the texture, or the subtlest of pauses was placed for text effect. And I kept having flashbacks to voice lessons, where he was telling me to do this thing or another to bring the text to life. The fact that I have now heard him sing the cycle three times in concert, and have never noticed those details before implies to me that the fortepiano’s decay made it possible for Frank to access multiple levels of soft, and therefore additional levels of nuance and shaping that aren’t possible with a Steinway concert grand. (He did confirm to me when I chatted with him afterwards that he was trying for softer dynamics than usual.) Rifkin, for his part, was exemplary in watching Kelley like a hawk, and matching him step for step. It was a remarkable collaboration, and I’m glad I braved the stifling heat in the church to hear them.

    Comment by James C.S. Liu — August 15, 2019 at 8:13 pm

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