Aston Magna: Life richly lived, music richly played


GREAT BARRINGTON -- Before there was Jean Sibelius, there was Bernhard Crusell, from the town of Uusikaupunki.

What, you’ve never heard of Bernhard Crusell or the town of Uusikaupunki?

Aston Magna brought back the earlier Finnish composer to open its "Winds of Romanticism" concert Saturday night at Simon’s Rock. From Finnish start to finish line, this was a richly rewarding program, even if Crusell’s divertimento -- a little charmer, it is -- sounded more classically than romantically oriented.

Not the least of the evening’s pleasures was hearing two masters of period wind instruments, oboist Stephen Hammer and clarinetist Eric Hoeprich, with a quartet on 19th-century string instruments. Each wind player got to play in one piece. Each would have been welcome in more.

The Crusell-Mendelssohn-Brahms program marked a step forward in time for the early music festival, which usually stays on the earlier side of the 18th- 19th-century line. But good musicians are good musicians. Led by director-violinist Daniel Stepner, the playing blended finesse with fervor.

The main business of the evening was Mendelssohn’s String Quartet, Opus 13, and Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet. But first came Crusell’s three-movement Divertimento for oboe and strings, in which Hammer spun beguiling lyrical and ornate lines in music of Mozartean grace.

The march of history could be heard in Mendelssohn’s first of six string quartets, which followed Crusell. The Finn’s work dates from 1822, Mendelssohn’s from 1827. While Crusell’s slow movement harks back to Mozart arias, with the oboe singing in plaintive tones, Mendelssohn’s adagio is unashamedly romantic like one of his songs without words.

The quartet, the work of a 20-year-old, sprawls, rambles and doubles back on itself, with echoes of Bach and Beethoven. It wears its heart on its sleeve but, unlike Mendelssohn’s "Midsummer Night’s Dream" Overture from two years before, seems also to show its learning, especially when a fugue breaks out in the midst of the adagio’s sighs.

Violinist Julie Leven, violist David Miller and cellist Guy Fishman joined Stepner in the ardent performance. After the Crusell, the players switched to a later set of instruments to bring out Mendelssohn’s warmer, darker hues.

Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet, dating from his last years, is usually described as autumnal. With Hoeprich’s woody tones on the old clarinet weaving in and out of the strings and ranging afar, this performance made it clear that Brahms’ old age was not an entirely serene one.

The playing enjoyed both formal cohesion -- Brahms’ seemingly leisurely pace belies his tight construction -- and emotional force. The period instruments removed the high gloss the music normally carries, heightening the first movement’s storms and the adagio’s introspection. The final B minor chord was like a stab to the heart. This is life richly lived.


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