Harbisons offer a potent potpourri
Painful to admit (and hard to believe) that the final program of the 29th Token Creek Chamber Music Festival was given four weeks ago…but in a season when I finally made it to all three offerings, I hope my readers will indulge me with a “better late than never” accounting.
The final concerts (given on September 1 and 2; I was at the first one) could hardly have been more different from the first two (which of course is one of the great things about TCCMF). The first concerts focused on Bach and Primosch, and on the second, the Kepler Quartet made a rare live appearance to give the faithful filling The Barn a dazzling lesson in “just tuning” and the microtonalism of Ben Johnston, among others.
The last program was dominated by Schumann, but not before we were treated to one of those hidden treasures that so freely flowed from Haydn’s pen while he still toiled in semi-obscurity at the Esterhaza’s Hungarian estate. When he wrote his Keyboard Sonata in E Major, H. XVI:22 the year was 1773; Mozart was still a teen prodigy, and Beethoven all of three years old. John Harbison gave some wonderfully pithy insights, saying of these works “I could almost have flipped the volume of sonatas open to any page and played a great work.” The middle movement was particularly illuminating, giving us an idea of why, twenty years later, the teacher Haydn would bristle occasionally at the works his pupil—Beethoven—brought to him (eventually dedicating his first set of three piano sonatas to Papa Haydn, of course).
Next we were treated to a world premiere of Harbison’s, three short songs collected as “In Early Evening.” Set to texts of Louise Gluck, Harbison and tenor Frank Kelley brought the captivating poems to vivid life. The last one, “Gemini,” had something of a Britten-esque quality to it, after a declamatory “Poem” and the central and poignant “Departure.”
Kelley then tackled one of the great song cycles in the repertoire, Schumann’s Dichterliebe. If that wasn’t enough to excite a listener, his keyboard partner was Janice Weber. Yours truly for years marveled at her 1988 CD of the original version of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes; the quote Time magazine gave her is nearly as legendary as the recording (you can read it in her Wikipedia entry).
Schumann offers a whole different set of technical challenges, of course, and Kelley and Weber’s traversal of the sixteen songs was most memorable. Kelley revealed on a number of occasions some real insights, such as in the second lied, with lines delivered with almost spoken intensity. The pair’s attention to dynamic contrasts was particularly effective in the intimate setting of the Barn; Weber gave an individual touch in the thirteenth number, with musical punctuations in the piano to Kelley’s singing. The latter also revealed some rich colors in the lower part of his voice in the final song, and Weber, as one would expect, delivered a masterclass in “accompanying.”
The last work of the all-too-brief Token Creek “season” was given to Schumann’s great Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor. Rose Mary Harbison was the violinist, with Karl Lavine back on cello (imagine switching gears from “just intonation” and microtonal machinations to Schumann in less than 72 hours’ time!). The performance picked up momentum after a solid opening movement, with the ensuing scherzo so energizing that scattered applause broke out before the great slow movement began. Rose Mary opined that this was her favorite part of the work, and her playing certainly backed up that sentiment. And the rousing finale still could not dispel that all too familiar realization: another TCCMF has come and gone, and we have 51 weeks for its return…certainly they’ll give us that nice round number of 30th season, yes? We’re counting on it.
In the meantime, there are lots of John Harbison events coming, as he and we celebrate his 80th birthday in December. Watch this space for a CD review (soon!) of a new Naxos recording that includes his Symphony No. 4, and before the end of the year, the imminent release on Naxos of his Requiem. February of next year brings a plethora of events and performances…and we’ll have plenty of news here about them as they near.