Those vigas and latillas and massive corbels in St. Francis Auditorium may still be vibrating after pianist Alessio Bax’s big bow-wow July 29 noon recital. At first glance his program looked a bit peculiar: Rachmaninoff and Mussorgsky—yes, yes—but preceded by...what? Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31, Op. 110, his penultimate piano sonata, unpredictable, soul-stirring and way, way beyond the manner and tone of the Russian selections. Was Bax about to show us some un-looked-for connection among the composers?
Well, of course not. His Beethoven was simply self-indulgent nonsense, unsubtle and careless of the composer's dynamic markings. If Bax knew what a pianissimo should sound like, he barely let on. The intensely moving recitative and arioso in Beethoven's final movement went for naught. Throughout the concert, Bax showed an over-fondness for the nether regions of the keyboard and a delight in the dynamic range above fortissimo.
In a Monty Python-esque non sequitur segue from the transcendent Op. 110, his program jolted into Mussorgsky's peppery "Hopak" as arranged by Rachmaninoff, a brief Cossack romp best heard as an encore. But then another violent segue...Rachmaninoff's Prelude No. 16, Op. 32, No. 5 wherein Bax's pensive, shimmering reading became the high point of his recital. More Rachmaninoff followed, the familiar Prelude No. 6, Op. 23, No. 5, splashed about in grand style.
A technically dazzling, heavy-footed account of "Pictures at an Exhibition" concluded the concert and lurched the packed hall to its own heavy feet. Bax's encore, Rachmaninoff's slick, salon-esque arrangement of Fritz Kreisler's "Liebesfreud" made a welcome chaser.
Last Thursday night, the atmosphere was literally and positively electric as a thundery monsoon prowled about the Plaza. Indoors at St. Francis, as pianist Victor Santiago Asunción and flutist Tara Helen O'Connor were delivering a polished account of Schubert's "Trockne Blumen" Variations, a monstrous ffff thunderclap rocked the roof, levitating the audience an inch or so from our pews. The artists maintained a perfect sang-froid, collapsing hilariously into each other's arms only at the bows.
But this is supposed to be a review, not a weather report. An American premiere followed, Brett Dean's String Quartet No. 2, "And once I played Ophelia" for soprano and strings, with Toby Arnold and the Orion Quartet, and a text derived from Shakespeare by Matthew Jocelyn. The 20-minute work in five uninterrupted sections provides a pastiche of quotes from Hamlet, ranging from his "nunnery" invective, to his lame love poem, to Polonius' ranting attack on his daughter, to Gertrude's description—much truncated—of Ophelia's death. The final section, offering the only quotation from the mad scene itself, cites her ultimate lines, "Good night, sweet ladies." Here, Ophelia bids poignant farewell to a corrupt, corrupting court and to a drama that, for her, has become superfluous.
Hyperdramatic indeed is Dean's piece, a throwback to an expressionism that, while eschewing sprechstimme, smacks at times of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. Arnold's soprano ranges from whisper to near-shriek in her depiction of a deranged mind in anguished recollection of the ghastliness that is Elsinore. The string accompaniment, generally a shuddery obbligato, seems less a quartet per se than melodramatic supporting voice. Minor though the work is, it succeeds in its slightly pretentious musico-literary terms.
After a dank intermission, the Orion Quartet offered Beethoven's String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132, in their reliably insightful manner. That ineffable Andante, "Sacred Song of Thanksgiving," as they delivered it, left nothing more to be said. Wittgenstein's proposition enjoins: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." Assuredly, the Orions left us speechless.
On an entirely different note, though, it's your turn to speak up, dear reader. Name that well-known Victorian novel in which Handel's Suite No. 5 in E Major (see below) plays a not insignificant role as plot device. Got it? Good. The second "Bach Plus" concert of the summer was to be notable for programming nothing but Handel. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. The rising young mezzo, Sasha Cooke, announced as soloist in Handel's early, voice-killing cantata, La Lucrezia, had taken ill and was unable to perform.
Could it be that casting difficulties plaguing the Santa Fe Opera this season have become contagious? Apparently not, one hopes, as Cooke's later appearances with SFCMF should go on as scheduled. The August 2, mostly Handel program opened as planned with the composer's C Major Flute Sonata in a graceful account by O'Connor accompanied by Kathleen McIntosh's harpsichord. The larghetto, especially, was beautifully inflected.
That didn't happen in Handel's aforementioned Fifth Suite subtitled "The Harmonious Blacksmith." Asunción offered a barely recognizable pianistic take on this familiar work, a reading notable for erratic tempos, muddy textures and haphazard accentuation. In place of the projected cantata, O'Connor and McIntosh returned with Marin Marais' "Les folies d'Espagne, Book II, No. 20," a set of virtuosic variations that tested the flutist's mettle. She passed handily.
Following that, Biber's F Major Violin Sonata No. 3, another substitution, concluded the program with a splash, McIntosh accompanying Daniel Phillips in this outrageously difficult, unpredictably brilliant showpiece. The sonata, a wild and wooly portfolio of Baroque extravagance, features elaborate echo effects, fancy bowing and double-stopping, brutal passagework, a mini-chaconne—you name it, you got it—with a final note that drops the jaw. Phillips simply nailed that sucker.
The 42nd season of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival continues through Monday, Aug. 25.