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.