The noon recitals of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival have proved popular with audiences, and for good reason. It can be very pleasant to pop inside to listen to music for an hour or so while the sun reigns on high and then get on with your day. On July 20, the noontime concert at St. Francis Auditorium was packed to the gills.
The program opened with a group of solo pieces rendered by guitarist Łukasz Kuropaczewski, whose instrument (an acoustic guitar, of course) was amplified so it could be heard throughout the hall. His material was of the slightest sort. He opened with six arrangements of Catalan folksongs as set by the Barcelona-born guitarist Miguel Llobet Solés, in 1899 and the years following. For unexplained reasons, they were given here in arrangements by Manuel Barrueco; one might have supposed that, since Llobet was a virtuoso guitarist himself, his original settings would have been idiomatic for the instrument and just as he wanted them. Many listeners will have recognized one of these tunes, “El noi de la Mare” (The Child of the Mother); Andrés Segovia made this setting famous in concert and in recordings, it was a recital standard for Victoria de los Angeles and José Carreras (among others), and choirs intone it at Christmas in John Rutter’s arrangement, to the words “What shall we give to the son of the Virgin?” Two further Barrueco arrangements followed, in both cases solo-guitar transcriptions of Paganini sonatas originally penned for violin and guitar. Kuropaczewski imposed extreme rubato and other Romanticizing touches on his interpretations. The result was amiable in the folksong settings, but it was hard to find one’s sea legs as the Paganini swooped about in rhythms and tempos that constantly waxed and waned.
Mozart’s D-major String Quintet (K. 593) is music of an entirely different order, a masterwork completed just about a year before the composer’s death. It was entrusted to the capable hands and arms of violinists Jennifer Frautschi and Daniel Hope, violists Paul Neubauer and CarlaMaria Rodrigues, and cellist Clive Greensmith. For the fast movements they chose tempos a shade more stately than the norm, which yielded a subdued character. The ensemble’s sound was relatively bright overall but it assumed greater mellowness in the supernal Adagio, where Neubauer added especially elegant touches. The concluding Allegro presents a textual problem in that its main theme is configured differently in the work’s first edition than in Mozart’s manuscript — same general contour, but different filigree. The players followed the manuscript’s version, which is built on descending chromatic scales. The other, which involves a skipping figuration, lends a rather giddy feeling. This group chose the one that has more going for it from a musicological standpoint, and it was better suited to the pensive outlook of their treatment in general.
A word may be in order about the moment in Mozart’s career that gave rise to this piece. The Festival’s program note stated: “1790 was not a good year for Mozart compositionally. After he completed what would be his final string quartet (in F Major, K. 590), the fall and early winter saw him produce only a comic duet, some arrangements of two works of Handel, and this masterful, unique, and penultimate String Quintet.” Noting that “an ambiguous unease seems to lurk just beneath the surface,” it concludes, “It is perhaps too tempting in hindsight to speculate that, for all the trials of 1790, Mozart sensed that 1791 would be worse: within a year he would be dead.” I would agree that one should not speculate that, and I worry that even with the proviso, saying such a thing plays unnecessarily into the “Mozart myth” that became established in the Romantic era — the idea that he foresaw his death approaching and that his late compositions reflect that premonition. There is no reason to believe that he had the slightest inkling of his impending demise. He enjoyed generally good health until he fell ill in mid-to-late November 1791, not more than three weeks before he died on Dec. 5. Until those final weeks, his career was going very well; he was fulfilling his minimal duties as Court Chamber Musician, an appointment of which he was proud and which he assumed would lead to still greater things. He was not living under a shadow, nor was he inactive as a composer. While he did complete rather few pieces during the second half of 1790, he was nonetheless busy producing what are termed “fragments,” not fleeting sketches but rather chunks of compositions worked out in some detail. Musicologists had gotten into the habit of simply ignoring unfinished pieces, but they now appreciate that fragments count, too. The eminent scholar Christoph Wolff discusses this lucidly in his 2012 book Mozart at the Gateway to His Fortune — Serving the Emperor: 1788-1791. He views these plentiful fragments as mnemonics that would help the composer write out a piece that was already formed in his mind, once he found the time, and he investigates how they document the progress of Mozart’s musical thinking even if they are not destined for the concert hall. It seems that the music Mozart wrote in 1790 did not represent a slowdown in his development, even if he left it to posterity in only fragmentary form.
On the evening of July 24 (repeating a program from the night before), the Festival presented two familiar classics and a rarity, also at St. Francis Auditorium. The first piece, Schumann’s Märchenerzählungen, was played by clarinetist Todd Levy, violist Rodrigues, and pianist Jon Kimura Parker. At least the first two musicians surely know the piece chapter and verse — it is an essential entry in the clarinet and viola literature — but the performance sounded under-rehearsed, as if the participants were each interpreting their music as remembered from past concerts they had given but had not quite landed on what to do with it this time. These four character pieces were short on individual personalities. Far more rewarding was Beethoven’s Piano Trio in C minor (Op. 1, No. 3), in which Parker was joined by Frautschi and cellist Mark Kosower. Already in the first movement their interpretation was committed and involving, totally “in the zone.” The players were well matched and yet injected individualism into the equation. Frautschi displayed a winning combination of violinistic discipline plus emotive concentration, while Parker impressed through his carefully balanced voicing and, in the third movement, bubbling good humor. (Did he really substitute a glissando for the descending octave scales at the end of that movement’s Trio section? Yea or nay, that moment earned a surprised and delighted smile from me.)
After intermission came the rarity, the String Quintet in A major (Op. 39) by Alexander Glazunov. He flickered across Santa Feans’ radars recently; in the aftermath of the political brouhaha that enveloped Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1905 — and that seems to have fed to some degree into his opera The Golden Cockerel, now playing at Santa Fe Opera — it was Glazunov who was named the school’s director and was charged with restoring order. His Quintet predates all that, though, having been written in 1891-1892. It received a splendid performance from violinists Rachel Barton Pine and Frautschi, violist Neubauer, and cellists Kosower and Greensmith — impressive string-playing through and through, with the two cellos at the bottom lending great warmth. Glazunov’s piece stands with one foot in the salon and perhaps one toe of the other testing the climate of the steppes. He was no rampant musical nationalist like Rimsky-Korsakov, who was his teacher and friend, and his occasional nods to traditional Russian modality or melody feel more dutiful than deeply felt. Instead, he was a composer of a more Tchaikovskian mold, and the dense harmonies of the piece’s third movement even summoned up Grieg. No overlooked masterpiece lurks in these pages, but one could hardly imagine a better performance of this thoroughly enjoyable composition. It was a perfectly pleasant way to pass a half-hour.
The summer season of the Santa Fe Desert Chorale is also up and running. Of the group’s four programs this season, the one I had looked forward to the most (being an early-music aficionado) was the one titled Music for a Secret Chapel, which was described as focusing on music by the Englishman William Byrd and Roman composers of his day, most especially Giovanni Pierlugi da Palestrina — the idea being to underscore tensions between Catholic and Protestant communities in the late Renaissance. I regretted that I was unable to be at the opening performance of this program, the more so since schedule conflicts with other concerts would prevent me from attending later go-rounds (which include upcoming dates in Albuquerque on July 29 and in Santa Fe on Aug. 2 and Aug. 9). The best solution was to catch excerpts from the program at First Presbyterian Church on July 20, and that, I am afraid, lessened my disappointment over not hearing more.
The reduced program involved five of the nine singers involved in the full program (three women, two men), and seven of its 15 compositions. In fact, even the full program lacks a real center, containing only three pieces by Byrd and four contemporary sacred works from Rome (and also one slightly later Roman one). The rest is a miscellany of short pieces, a formula familiar to the Desert Chorale’s audiences. The excerpted program I heard included one work each by Byrd and Palestrina — Ave verum Corpus and Super flumina Babylonis, respectively, both qualifying as among the most famous and frequently anthologized pieces by their composers. Also on the program were a song-chant by the medieval abbess Hildegard von Bingen, Josquin des Prez’s Ave Maria (also his most familiar chestnut), an example of Sarum chant (Catholic chant as sung in early England), a motet by the Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (whose life overlapped with those of Byrd and Palestrina), and a selection by the Italian madrigalist Luca Marenzio.
The one-on-a-part singers were adept but are surely better suited to choir work than to solo exposure. The church’s acoustics, which are dry as a bone, magnify any inaccuracies of pitch (which were not as scarce as one might have wished), and are characteristically unhelpful when it comes to adding resonance to “fill out” the sound of any ensemble. The best work came in “A la strada,” a three-part “canzonetta alla napoletana” by Marenzio. Sung by the three women in tight ensemble and with embellished melodic lines, it conveyed bright cheerfulness. ◀