Aston Magna Festival: Like father unlike son
GREAT BARRINGTON -- What’s the old saying -- the son takes after his father?
It was as if Aston Magna set out to disprove the truism, preceding J.S. Bach’s masterly "Musical Offering" with three strange pieces by one of his many sons, C.P.E. Bach. The program, which opened the early-music festival’s 42nd season Saturday night at Simon’s Rock, was billed as a happy 300th birthday to Carl Philipp Emanuel (to give him his full name).
Among the 866 works and collections in C.P.E.’s catalog, some must be less chattering, disjointed and sometimes downright weird than this selection of three. In a preconcert interview, director-violinist Daniel Stepner characterized them as "outlandish." Oh yes, indeed.
Five players on period instruments linked the father’s visit to the son in Potsdam when C.P.E. was in the employ of Frederick the Great. Out of that visit came the king’s challenge to Johann Sebastian to write a fugue on a theme the king proposed.
The result, completed when the old man returned home in Leipzig: not just one fugue but a massive exercise in counterpoint that became the "offering" to the king. After 45 minutes of assorted fugues and canons, with a complete trio sonata tucked into the middle, the fugue subject remains stuck in your head for 45 hours. Or days. Or weeks.
The performance of this epic work on flute, fortepiano and strings was surprisingly understated, even subdued. Stepner seemed to be having trouble on violin, and that may have contributed to the cautious tempos and dynamics that prevailed. The counterpoint was clearly etched, and sparks flew during the trio sonata. Otherwise, the playing remained on an earnest plateau.
The problem with C.P.E., at least on this program, was that you kept wanting him to be Haydn or even Mozart.
The style is a middle ground between Johann Sebastian and Haydn, abandoning contrapuntal complexity in favor of a greater "sensibility" (as the style was known). Perhaps the strangest work of the three was a "Fantasy-Sonata" in F sharp minor for keyboard and violin.
The violin is on board here only as an onlooker, commenting on the wild outbursts, runs, gyrations and jabs from the keyboard. (The piece was originally for keyboard alone.) The rapidly shifting sections -- slow to fast and so on -- seem to want to create tragedy but wind up more like being lost in the dark. Peter Sykes excelled in the elaborate keyboard part.
A quartet for flute, keyboard and strings recalled Frederick’s avocation as a flute player (reputedly a good one), and a sonata for bass recorder, viola and continuo revealed the mellow possibilities of the bass instrument, even while it sounded like a soprano recorder that has caught cold. The performances honored C.P.E. in all his note-spinning wonder.
Joining Stepner and Sykes in the ensemble were Anne Black on violin and viola, Christopher Krueger on baroque flute and recorder, and Laura Jeppesen on viola da gamba.
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