IN: Reviews

Aston Magna Cum Laude


While attention is being paid to the 50th Anniversary of Aston Magna’s founding, the story last night at Brandeis’s Slosberg Auditorium seemed to be more about celebrating two seasoned performers, friends and colleagues who have been playing together for over 50 years. Violinist-Aston Magna Artistic Director Dan Stepner and pianist, teacher, musicologist extraordinaire Robert Levin communicate love across three of four centuries of music from Bach and the pre-Baroque up through the present day. Both studied with Nadia Boulanger, and both believe in tikkun olam. Stepner heals the world by programming his marvelous rediscoveries to loyal concert goers and Levin, not only by his pianism and musical thought, but also by his repairing of broken fragments from Bach and Mozart.

The friends’ warmth in elucidating what we were about to hear, made the steeply raked hall feel almost homey…not a place to storm the heavens with sumptuous, tones and overselling on this night, perhaps, but rather an occasion for witty and eloquent discourse

The concert earned its marketing nomer, “Robert Levin’s Mozart,” from some imaginative and idiomatic reconstruction work. Dan Stepner noted that:

Mozart also left us seven tantalizing fragments of piano/violin works (and even a fragment of a sonata for piano and cello!) that several musicians have endeavored to complete. This risky challenge requires a deep knowledge of Mozart’s music and its stylistic development. It demands not only a familiarity with the structural patterns within which Mozart operated, but also an instinct for Mozartean daring, impishness, surprise, and depth of feeling. Robert Levin has completed a substantial number of fragments by Mozart, notably the Requiem and the Mass in C Minor, but also some of his chamber music. Aston Magna has performed and recorded his completion of a movement for clarinet and string quartet.

But before we got to hear the results* of Levin’s musicological un-fragmentation, we were able to enjoy The Sonata, K. 301 in G Major for piano and violin.” (In this one the violin got the tune first while the piano opened with alberti, and equality prevailed. Later the violin often yielded during this piano-dominant night, especially during the CPE Bach Fantasy.)

Right off, we salute R. J. Rieger’s copy of a Viennese Walter instrument. It spoke beautifully and without fragility into the space and Levin enthusiastically brought forth its multiple personalities. While it has smooth note-to-note refinement of voicing, its registers color quite distinctly from one another. The bass rings, the tenor sings, and the treble responds beautifully to quicksilver runs. A moderator stop (felt strips interposed between hammers and strings) allowed, through the performer’s raised knee, a most poignantly vanishing pianissimo.

The lively but inoffensive two-moment K. 301 featured much playful starting, stopping and imitation, in which the players seemed to take pleasure in one another’s company. Stepner’s bright, rosiny, sound made a lively foil to the warmth of Levin’s phrasing: eloquent, elegant, and at the same time improvisational and surprising. We also enjoyed watching the way Levin interacted with the keys. This looked like the Clementi-style finger work which tests the stiffness of wrists by balancing a coin on the hand. His upper body remained almost immobile, and his arms moved only in crossings. The instrument never produced an ugly sound; with its light touch and shallow key dip, it was a demon for speed (under those racing fingers) and it held our interest.

Levin deftly programmed his completion of Mozart’s Fantasie in C Minor, K. 396 (1782) as an introduction to his repair of the master’s late and unfinished Sonata in C Major, K. 403 (1784-5).  The fantasy reached toward romanticism in its freer expression. Here the violin had more exposure, giving us the chance to recognize the artistry that Stepner has developed over so many years. He made his intentions manifest and emphatic, and he gave no ground to Levin in velocity. Levin ornamented with delightful inevitability. His staccato upward scales in thirds on what would be called black notes on a modern piano reached into Lisztian realms.

The duo went attacca into the K. 403, which, despite its relative lateness, possessed a youthful mien. The Allegro moderato offered drawing-room familiarity. One yearned for a bit more sustain from the piano in the Andante, but the violin could nevertheless relax into the flexible space set up by the keyboard. Stepner allowed himself some lovely, mild portamenti and employed subtle vibrato at phrase endings. The Allegretto set forth forte fast and furious and the level of energy never flagged. Even at speed, the notes lined up.

CPE Bach’s Fantasy in F-sharp Minor Wq 80 (1787), an outlier in this Mozart concert, made for a welcome and astonishing discovery for most of us. Stepner’s notes deserve a wide readership:

C.P.E. Bach’s music is being rediscovered today and newly appreciated for its invention, dramatic daring and constant surprise, and its affecting lyricism. His pedigree as the son of J. S. Bach must have been both a burden and inspiration for him and his composer-brothers, Wilhelm Friedemann and Johann Christian. Of the three, C.P. E. Bach was the most loyal to his father’s memory. Yet it was he, arguably, who most successfully established his own compositional voice, as substantial in its own way as his father’s. He composed hundreds of keyboard sonatas and fantasies, dozens of concerti for various instruments, many duos, trios and quartets, 51 symphonies, and hundreds of vocal works, including songs, vocal ensembles, cantatas, passions, and motets. He also wrote an important treatise on keyboard playing that Mozart and Beethoven both knew and valued.

Robert Levin (Clive Barda photo)

The Fantasie in F-sharp Minor is one of his last works, composed a year before his death at 73, in 1787. His own subtitle, “C.P.E. Bach’s Empfindugen” (CPE Bach’s Feelings), signals a very personal statement. Musicologist and composer Heinrich Poos recently noted that Bach quoted one of his own songs, “Thoughts About Death.” Besides contemplating his own end, CPE Bach had lost a son—a serious painter named Johann Sebastian Bach―a decade before. But what is most noteworthy about the work is its mercurial mood swings, as in his experimental trio sonata “Sanguenius und Melancholichus,” in which the two opposite, musically personified affects try to win each other over. (Stepner spoke of the connection to JS Bach’s Cantata, Der Streit zwischen Phoebus und Pan. [This writer well remembers how Pan rejoices in hot dance while Phoebus sings of soulful longing. BMInt posted an interesting interview about the cantata HERE] In the Fantasie played tonight, the tempo markings, often come quickly one after the other: Sehr Traurig und Iangsam (Very sadly and slowly), Allegretto, Largo, Adagio, Largo, Adagio, Allegro, Allegretto, Adagio, Allegretto, Largo, and [coda] Allegro.

The Fantasie exists for keyboard alone and for keyboard with violin. Even in the duo version presented tonight, the keyboard is dominant, the violin merely underlining and dramatizing the daring modulations and phrasing. But in this version, Bach added a substantial, upbeat coda to the original solo version. After so much brooding, this coda is quite unexpected and at emotional odds with much of the rest of the work. Such are human emotions!

It opened with a ravishing ppp from the piano with the moderator engaged. A stepped crescendo contrasted before fractalating brightwork glimmered fast and free. The ppp returned, dark and foreboding. Levin struck lightening with his runs while Stepner patiently waited for his cues. A trio came out of nowhere. Could Schumann have written his schizzy Humoreske without the license supplied by CPE?

In the Sonata in A Major, K. 525 (1787) we heard a confident, late mastery of the duo form. Stepner got his chance to revel in velocity… if this is ‘just’ Molto Vivace, how will they be able to play any faster in the concluding Presto? Would the metronome weight slide down to Prestissimo?

The Andante began unpropitiously like a foursquare etude before the piano led it with delicacy to loftier, more urgent realms. Stepner engaged fully with expression, but Levin time after time schooled us with his knack for shape and surprise. And he really mowed down scads of notes in the Presto with splendid delight and ease. Stepner too, caught fire, and the piano again responded like a well-oiled machine. Together they gave chase, and at the finish line they earned our thanks.

They encored, (rather Levin encored since the violin had little to do), with an earlier version of K. 525’s first movement.

The Aston Magna season continues through July 22nd. This concert reprises on Saturday night in Great Barrington. To our regret, Robert Levin will be moving to Salzburg with his wife YaFei Chuang. She is newly appointed as University Professor at the Mozarteum. They will continue to maintain digs in Cambridge as well.

* Levin essentially composed the violin part of the C Minor Fantasie, as Mozart left only a five bars for the violin.  In the sonata K. 403, Mozart completed the first two movements and about 20 bars of the finale…Levin went on from there.  And in our encore, Bob essentially created the whole piece out of a few bars for the piano which Mozart left us.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

Comments Off on Aston Magna Cum Laude