by Michael Caruso
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, hosted the final “Five Fridays” chamber music recital of the 2016-17 season on May 5. The series raises money for Face to Face Germantown and Philadelphia Hospitality Network, two local charities striving to help the homeless throughout Northwest Philadelphia. Over the past six years, the series has raised nearly $20,000. The parish covers the costs of the performances and the receptions that follow, so all ticket proceeds are turned over to both charities.
Friday evening’s performers were soprano Molly Quinn and lute and theorbo player David Walker. They were heard in a program of Renaissance and early Baroque works for voice and accompaniment plus a few for lute or theorbo, alone. Most of the composers are little known outside the circle of those directly involved with early music.
The principal exception was Claudio Monteverdi, who lived from 1567 until 1643. His music is generally credited with marking the break between the style of the High Renaissance of masters such as Palestrina and Victoria and the manner of the early Baroque which eventually led to Vivaldi, Bach and Handel. Monteverdi established a simpler texture of voice accompanied by instrument(s) in place of the plethora of contrapuntal lines that often obscured the text. Monteverdi returned classical music to the ancient Greek ideal as exemplified in the classic dramas that were declaimed, chanted and sung. It was a simple step for him to move from writing songs and madrigals to composing operas. His “Orfeo” of 1607 is the earliest extant opera in the repertoire.
Quinn and Walker performed three of Monteverdi’s finest songs: “Si dolce tormento,” “Ohime ch’io cado” and “Quel sguardo.” The composer’s supple setting of the Italian texts became models for generations of composers who followed. Of those others performed Friday evening, none stood out as memorably as Barbara Strozzi’s “Lamante segreto.”
Quinn’s voice was shown to be a marvel of tonal clarity and facile agility, broad in its dynamic range, deep in its well of varied tints and shadings and potent in its delivery of a highly charged delineation of not merely the words of each song but of the emotional world from which they emanated. Her diction was not so much crystalline as theatrically focused. Her inflections were not merely expressive but revelatory. And she convinced each and every listener that she was singing specifically and especially to her or him.
Walker offered accompaniment that was sensitive and supportive and shone on his own in two solo works by Giovanni Kapsburger.
Music director Yannick Nezet-Seguin returned to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s podium May 3, 5 and 6 to conduct the ensemble in performances of Bernstein’s “Jeremiah” Symphony No. 1, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor and Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C major. I caught the Saturday, May 6, concert in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall and came away with a greater appreciation for the Bernstein, jaw-dropping admiration for our young maestro’s interpretation of the Schumann and puzzled disappointment with pianist Radu Lupu’s performance in the Mozart.
Composed in 1942 while World War II raged in Europe and Asia, and shortly after his studies at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, Bernstein’s “Jeremiah” Symphony is not only his first effort in this principal classical form but his first major foray into classical music, itself. And yet, while it does display the reckless exuberance and explosive experimentation of youth – he was only 24 years old at the time – it also reveals a musician securely on his way to speaking with his own distinctive voice. The “Jeremiah” Symphony sounds like the Bernstein America and the world would come to know and love in both the classical and popular genres. The bracing orchestration, propulsive rhythms and dissonant tonality that mark his entire canon are splendidly present in the “Jeremiah.”
Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphians, plus mezzo Sasha Cooke in the third movement marked “Lamentation” gave the score a riveting reading before a packed house Saturday evening. Even the broadest of gestures were placed safely within the music’s overall structure so that they could make their most potent impact on the listener. Cooke was especially effective singing the text draw from the Old Testament “Lamentations of Jeremiah.” Her clear yet warm tone delineated a sense of profound sadness and regret.
Schumann’s Second Symphony has been a favorite with the Philadelphia Orchestra since its first music director, Fritz Scheel, led it in 1903 through the recording it made in 2003 with then music director Wolfgang Sawallisch. Never one to be daunted by a century-plus legacy, Nezet-Seguin blazed his own trail Saturday evening. Schumann’s oft-critiqued muddy orchestration came across with bracing clarity, his meandering development sounded concise, and all his peerless lyricism sang with the power of a well-honed chorus.
Pianist Radu Lupu’s interpretation of Mozart’s C minor Concerto managed to pair the unlikely adjectives “pale” and “ponderous.” I haven’t encountered any major score by Mozart taken at so slow a set of tempos as I did with Lupu at the unfortunately dragooned Steinway concert grand. I own a 1959 recording with the 72-year-old Artur Rubinstein playing this concerto, and even Rubinstein, who was 10 when Brahms died and who predates even the notion of “authentic” 18th performance practices, takes all three movements at a scintillating clip, investing the first movement with drama, the second with melting lyricism and the third with demonic bravura.
Radu’s playing, on the contrary, was painfully slow and even labored. Worse still, it was remarkably inexpressive of any emotion whatsoever. Considering that the program was a little on the long side, perhaps a Mozart opera overture would have been a better choice than the concerto, saving both time and money.
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