Chamber Music Festival
Theater, Aug. 11
easily fill Saratoga’s Spa Little Theater with the area’s
cult followers of pianist Martha Argerich, which happened
last Monday (Aug. 11). They cheered the performance of a less-than-minor
Beethoven piece with the ardency of a stadium of Springsteen
same Argerich-ites in the SPAC amphitheater, and they barely
make a dent. Which happened last Friday (Aug. 8), when a less-than-half-filled
hall cheered a major minor-Beethoven piece.
program featured the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Charles
Dutoit, with violinist Renaud Capuçon and cellist Gautier
Capuçon joining frequent collaborator Argerich in Beethoven’s
Triple Concerto, and first-chair violist Choon-Jin
Chang as soloist in Berlioz’s Harold in Italy. Had
it been booked in Carnegie Hall, or any hall in a major international
market, it would have been a sellout. But the Capital Region
remains culturally timid, hamstrung by a “that’s good enough
for Albany” mentality that settles for the second-rate, the
also-ran. Pursuing seats at a classical music concert might
make you seem as if you’re putting on airs.
is famously limelight shy, although she directs an annual
music festival in Switzerland and makes regular visits to
SPAC to perform with ex-spouse Dutoit.
point of these recent two appearances was in the Spa Little
Theater: a performance of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No.
2, a wrenching work composed in 1944 when the Nazi siege
of Leningrad had just ended and a close friend of the composer
had just died.
performer, Argerich approaches the stage modestly and sits
at the piano almost as an afterthought. She dives into a piece
as quickly as possible, but once it gets going you see someone
in rapt concentration, her fingers moving as an afterthought.
Suddenly the hands rise and fall and sound an unexpectedly
the passacaglia chords on piano alone that open the Trio’s
third movement. These are harmonies intended to frighten,
and the throbbing overtones were nerve-wracking. Violin and
cello develop long-lined ideas on top of those chords for
several choruses, rendering the sequence increasingly disturbing
even as it takes on a beauty of sound.
Capuçon looks like a Central Casting image of a moody cellist.
He leans back in his chair and embraces the instrument. With
his longish hair and serious mien, he would look at home in
the original Byrds line-up.
opens with plaintive cello harmonics, gorgeously rendered,
soon joined by a lower-voiced violin. From the start, you’re
thrown off-kilter by the unexpected voicings. Renaud has more
buttoned-down look than his brother, but he has his Ray Charles
moments—rocking back in his chair, stamping his feet—when
the music gets frantic.
happens in the second movement, a sardonic scherzo (there’s
a surprise!) and especially in the finale, when an emotionally
ambivalent Jewish melody is put through its paces. (As Shostakovich
explained, “A cheerful melody is built here on sad intonations.”)
and the Capuçon brothers tore into it with barely suppressed
fury. Were they layering on unnecessary emotion? Not to my
ears. This is a piece that demands total devotion from the
performers, and this approach can be heard in the composer’s
own recording of it.
the opening work, a piano quartet by Beethoven, benefitted
from anything the performers could throw its way. The violist
was Saratoga Chamber Music Festival director Chantal Juillet,
obviously sympathetic to the cause. Written when Beethoven
was in his teens, the work rips off a Mozart violin sonata.
Like the Mozart, it’s more about the piano, using the accompanying
strings as window dressing except for some second-movement
flourishes. It does foreshadow the composer’s wit and originality,
as in the first-movement development section when you’re tricked
into thinking the recapitulation has begun early.
wrote his Concerto for Piano, Violin, Cello and Orchestra
(performed Friday with the Philadelphia Orchestra) shortly
after finishing the “Eroica” symphony, but the concerto remains
a more traditional (if overly ambitious) piece. It frequently
favors the cello, which is the first-heard soloist, but soon
enough marches into a byplay between soloists and orchestra
that lacks the complexity of chamber works like the Archduke
trio but at least has the fun of that great big sound. And
the Polonaise that ends the piece is infectiously charming.
amphitheater performance was all the more exciting because,
as in the Little Theater, Argerich and the Capuçons held nothing
back in the passion department, offering quick tempi and sudden
dynamic contrasts and never looking to over-interpret any
of the lyrical passages.
we got another big piece on the second half of the orchestral
concerto: Harold in Italy, Berlioz’s tone-poem for
viola and orchestra, commissioned by Paganini and inspired
by Byron and a totally original piece that tells its tale
without the fireworks typical of concertos (and which is why
Paganini never performed it).
Choon-Jin Chang has the challenge of painting lyrical pictures
with his instrument’s contralto voice, that sea of orchestral
sound always threatening to sweep it away. He did beautifully.
Conductor Dutoit is always a sensitive accompanist, and supported
the soloist nicely. The second movement, for example, titled
March of the Pilgrims, gets into a hypnotic groove when the
pacing, the dynamics, the solo singing and arpeggios—when
all of those elements fall into place with conviction and
transparency. And that’s what we got.
of low voices: the chamber-music concert also included Grieg’s
rarely performed Cello Sonata, giving Gautier a chance
to go all romantic on us. The second movement, marked andante
molto tranquillo, showcased Grieg’s skill at melodic development,
and Argerich and Capuçon made the most of it. The long allegro
finale finds Grieg in his familiar Norwegian folk-melody mode,
and this inspiring performance makes you wonder why the work
hasn’t become a basic repertory piece.