IN: Reviews

Emotions Articulated through Music

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Mahan-Esfahani (Kaja Smith photo)

Saturday afternoon’s Rockport Chamber Music Festival concert featured a level of emotions immortalized in music to rival those in literature, through old and new viewpoints. Innovative harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, whose appearance last year enchanted, joined the Viano String Quartet (Lucy Wang and Hao Zhou, violin; Aiden Kane, viola; and Tate Zawadiuk, cello), as did flutist Demarre McGill and bassist Jeremy McCoy in a program spanning from Baroque through Now.

Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, often considered as bridging the way from the Baroque to Classical periods, claimed that his sole teacher was his father. In his Trio Sonata in C Minor, WQ 161/1, H579, subtitled as “Conversation between a Sanguineus and a Melancholicus” provides a fine example of C.P.E.’s intent to convince the world that music can be emotionally articulate. Here violinists Wang and Zhou conversed, with Esfahani’s harpsichord as moderator. The first movement, Allegretto –Presto, Melancholicus is muted and gentle, and Sanguineus unmuted and triple presto—and what’s more, changes from the initial C Minor to E-flat Major. The characters “debate” throughout the first movement and much of the second, an Adagio, in which Melancholicus begins muted and downturned. However, by the Adagio’s end, there is a sense of musical unanimity. At that point, Melancholicus is a bit cheered, and the final movement’s Allegro confirms it. The bemused and lively iteration of the work by Wang and Zhou with the collaborative support of Esfahani demonstrated, as C.P.E. intended, that music indeed can be as articulate as words, sometimes, moreso.

Georg Philipp Telemann, a close friend of J.S. Bach and among C.P.E. Bach’s godfathers, provided a fine example of contrasts in his Gulliver Suite for two violins. TWV:108 from his collection Der Getreue Musik-Meister, featuring here, Wang and Zhou. The Gulliver follows Swift’s book, published about two years prior to this composition from Intrada, with Lilliputian Chaconne, Brobdingnagian Gigue, Laputian’s reverie and their attendant Flappers, and, finally, Loure of the well-mannered Houyhnhnms & wild dance of the untamed Yahoos. First, the depth and robust sound of the two violins surprised. The subtle humor of the piece beguiled in its brief eight-minute journey.

Co-commissioned by the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, the Harpsichord Quintet: Mr. Bryars, His Sorrow at Miss Bley, Her Passing, is the second work the composer, Gavin Bryars, has written for Esfahani within the past year (the other, his exuberant harpsichord concerto). Bryars, a prodigious and wide-ranging composer and double bassist whose work (and performances) travel the range of the possible, creates sad magic within this 15-minute quintet. An elegy for Bryar’s jazz composer friend, Carla Bley, it was not an easy “listen,” as the grief it expresses pervaded every corner of the hall. In that sense, the performance conveyed more loss than any requiem I’ve heard. Those who know Bley’s work would recognize quotations from her work within this one. While the audience expressed restrained appreciation, I suspect this work will gain a solid and durable following.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

C.P.E.’s familiar and sunny 1786 Sonata for Flute in G Major, Wq 133, H. 564 (the so-called Hamburger sonata) greeted the post-intermission audience. Flutist McGill displayed his entrancing full sound; it came across with qualities reminiscent of Rampal. This last of C.P.E.’s flute and continuo sonatas, written while the composer was in his 70s, bestows originality, with an airy, light Allegretto connected by a short bridge to a Rondo: presto with martial overtones.

The afternoon ended with J.S. Bach’s Brandenberg No. 5 in D Major, BWV 1050, scored for flute, violin, flute, and harpsichord soloists and continuo. In a twist, the harpsichord gets to steal the show. Whether or not Bach’s purchase of a fine harpsichord in Berlin shortly before he wrote the work inspired such dominance, the keyboard emerges from its initial continuo role to become a soloist here, making the Fifth a signal piece. The string ensemble serves as ripieno, with violin, viola, cello and double bass (the able McCoy). Even though hearing the Brandenburg 5th again and again might seem tiresome, it almost never is. Here the two Allegros bracketing an Affettuoso had those present whooping at the conclusion. The monumental cadenza at the close of the first Allegro is a stunner, especially when played by an artist of Esfahani’s caliber. The Affetuoso presents a trio sonata constellation, but the harpsichord is a soloist, much more than simply the continuo. The final movement adds back the other strings, and with its initial fugal exposition takes control with added complexity and joy.

In all, another concert intriguingly programmed and engagingly delivered.

Julie Ingelfinger studied piano at the Hartt School of Music, Aspen Music Festival and School and at Harvard. She enjoys her day jobs as professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, pediatric nephrologist at Mass General Hospital for Children and deputy editor at the New England Journal of Medicine.

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