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Review: A Brief Encounter with sublime Mozart

Here were four world-class virtuosi tossing off with evident delight a tour de force of scampering runs, perfectly coordinated phrases, and stunning, gorgeous, dynamic surprises. One doesn’t listen to music making like this every week, or for that matter, every year.

Great Barrington — On arriving at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center shortly before intermission on October 25, your reviewer was shown to a seat in the back of the hall. On listening to the final Rondeau (Allegro) movement of Mozart’s 1780 Oboe Quartet in F Major, K.370, embarrassment on arriving late (because I mistakenly thought the starting time was 8 p.m.) turned to astonishment at the quality of the music.

Here were four world-class virtuosi tossing off with evident delight a tour de force of scampering runs, perfectly coordinated phrases, and stunning, gorgeous, dynamic surprises. Almost unbelievably, the oboist, James Austin Smith, gave a veritable master class in circular breathing in the service of sublime expression. (Here, a wind player simultaneously breathes in while he blows his instrument, hoping against hope to sustain a continuous line.) One doesn’t listen to music making like this every week, or for that matter, every year, and from this short sample, I knew I had to write about it.

The remaining two pieces of the concert, the Adagio and Rondo for Glass Harmonica and Quartet in C minor, KV.617 (1791) and the Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat Major, KV.493 (1786, Vienna), featured Mozart’s seeking heavenly exultation in his last work of chamber music, and rejoicing in the conversational possibilities of piano and strings. The title of the evening seemed well chosen indeed.

The role of glass harmonica, or as Benjamin Franklin described it, Armonica, was performed on celesta by the splendid young pianist, Roman Rabinovich. This transformed the work from a dreamy set of ethereal washes to a vivid exploration of high tonal impulses and delightfully strange collisions of instrumental overtones. And, mirabile dictu, Rabinovich was able to pull from it both dynamic shadings and clearly articulated harmonic transitions. He deployed the limited touch-sensitivity of the celesta with lighthearted subtlety and aplomb.

The ensemble was arrayed from left to right: flute, Tara Helen O’Connor; oboe, James Austin Smith: violin, Daniel Phillips: celesta, Roman Rabinovich; cello, Yehuda Hanani: and viola, Xiao-Dong Wang. The seating arrangement enabled a beautiful integration of woodwinds and of strings, both as sections and as an ensemble. As well, it gave visual access to their sensitive and lively interactions with the celesta.

Yehuda Hanani, cellist and artistic director of Close Encounters with Music. Photo by Peter Blandori.

Yehuda Hanani, its obvious leader, served as the emotional and rhythmic gyroscope of the group, foretelling the dynamic shadings and rising and falling intensities with welcoming glances, subtle bowing gestures, and tonal nuances on his cello. In Hanani’s hands, each impulse of pedal point conveyed a particular rhythmic and expressive meaning. His mastery in this regard was even more especially evident in the piano quartet that followed.

This is an unusual and precious skill in the performance of certain repeated notes, typically the fundamental or dominant of the starting harmony, played in the lower register, which enables melodic, contrapuntal, and harmonic development above, the sustained notes soothing the inevitable dissonances that occur when lines collide. And, as well, pushing the rhythm forward. Too often, all the notes can sound as if they are played the same. Not so here!

The overall sensibility of the glass harmonica work was whimsical and, without question, celestial. One cannot imagine a group of players more delighted to engage with this curious keyboard instrument, which Mr. Rabinovich had played for the first time in rehearsal that very morning.

Together, they projected an exquisitely-unfolding musical story, with an organic sense of pacing and respirational pausing, all the while seizing on delicious, witty exchanges among the characters; across the sections; and in fascinating combinations, such as antiphonal exchanges with the heavenly echoes of the celesta, beckoning, pleading, and laughing, and, toward the end, when the first violin, counterpoised against the viola and cello in unison, leads an exquisite two-part invention, a kind of Mozartian conversation with the guardian of the pearly gates.

Perhaps, toward the end of his short life, Mozart was arguing for acceptance of his dualistic character: to outweigh on the scale of judgment his astoundingly profane behavior and speech with his sublime music.

What of these oddly expressive instruments, the celesta and the glass harmonica? First, Mozart, who died in 1791, could not have known the celesta. A Parisian harmonium builder, Auguste Mustel, invented it in 1886.

The celesta, invented in 1886.
The celesta, invented in 1886.

To your reviewer, who has actually performed on the celesta at Ozawa Hall, this instrument seemed until now to be a keyboard-powered glockenspiel, blessed with a dampening pedal, great for sugarplum fairies in “Nutcracker” and twinkling presentations of rose and crystal in “Der Rosenkavalier,” but of little use in extended passages. Not so here! This was a voyage of discovery, thanks to Roman Rabinovich. This amazing young artist was evidently trained at Curtis and Juilliard to create beautiful music on whatever keyboard was available to him.

(Full disclosure: my own star turn on celesta took place on August 23, 2008, in the course of a concert given by the Cupcake Philharmonic Orchestra during Family Day at Tanglewood, while conducting and doubling on piano in support of the magnificent BSO tuba, Mike Roylance, on George Kleinsinger’s and Paul Tripp’s whimsical children’s story, “Tubby the Tuba.” Carolyn Newberger, who drew the portraits that illustrate this review, performed Tubby’s musical confidant, Peepo the Piccolo, on her instrument. Carolyn also doubled — on flute — and more than held her own with her seat-mates, the clarinet, Tom Martin, and oboe, Rob Sheena, of the BSO.)

Spinning glass disks (bowls) on a common shaft are arranged with the lower notes (larger disks) to the left and higher notes (smaller disks) to the right.
Spinning glass disks (bowls) on a common shaft are arranged with the lower notes (larger disks) to the left and higher notes (smaller disks) to the right.

Well prior to Franklin’s invention of the Armonica in 1761,in which 37 glass bowls were mounted horizontally on an iron spindle, turned by a foot-treadle of the kind one would see on an early Singer sewing machine, the ancient Greeks described a “harmonica to produce music for the soul by fingers dipped in water,” on glass, a hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica. Then, in Mozart’s time, starting in the 1740’s, the Irish musician, Richard Pockrich, performed in London on a set of upright crystal tankards filled with varying amounts of water.

According to the website of the Philadelphia Franklin Institute, which owns one of Benjamin Franklin’s original Armonicas, commissioned from his instructions from the instrument-maker, Charles James, in London in 1761,

Franklin's glass 'armonica.'
Franklin’s glass ‘armonica.’

Franklin said: “Of all my inventions, the glass Armonica has given me the greatest personal satisfaction.”

In 1773, Mozart and his father encountered one of Franklin’s Armonicas at the home of the physician and author of the theory of “animal magnetism” or “mesmerism,” Franz Anton Mesmer. Franklin, Mesmer, and Mozart were all Freemasons, who welcomed “glass music,” as it was called, for the promotion of “human harmony.”

Leopold Mozart wrote home that both Mesmer and Wolfgang applied their talents to the Armonica: “Do you know that Herr von Mesmer plays (the) harmonica unusually well? He is the only person in Vienna who has learnt it, and he possesses a much finer glass instrument than Miss Davies does. Wolfgang too has played upon it. How I should like to have one!” (For a painting of Franklin playing his Armenia, click here.) Most regrettably, there is no recorded meeting of Franklin and Mozart, however. (One would have liked to be a fly on the wall when the talk turned to country matters. They appeared to share certain characterological propensities.)

Notwithstanding the production of more than five thousand of Armonicas in the course of his lifetime, Franklin did not take a penny in royalties. In the year of his death, 1790, he wrote of all his inventions, “As we enjoy great Advantages from the Inventions of others we should be glad of an Opportunity to serve others by any Invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously.” Take that, Big Pharma and Monsanto!

To get a sense of what Mozart had in mind when he wrote the piece, please listen to this lovely excerpt of the Adagio and Rondo performed on Armonica by Thomas Bloch in a performance in Paris, featuring the same, marvelous James Austin Smith on oboe:

Note how the overtones from the twirling glass bowls clatter pleasantly against the upper registers of the strings, notwithstanding their near-perfect intonation and beautiful ensemble collaboration. It is indeed a heavenly reverberation.

Compare this to a treatment of the Adagio theme on the celesta that illustrates its own unique overtone series and the percussive impulses produced by its felt hammers striking metal bars. The performer is unknown, which is perhaps just as well, as he is no Roman Rabinovich.

Then compare these instruments to this wine-glass-harmonica in a proper quintet performance of the Adagio. Note how the overtones seem even more ethereal. The evanescence may be partly attributable to the necessarily- slower tempo. Getting one’s hands around this instrument is no mean feat!

The E flat chord that began the 1786 piano quartet sounded astonishingly luscious and warm. To a listener who hadn’t previously experienced a live music concert in the Mahaiwe, much less to a full house, balconies and all, there was certainly something magical about the acoustics. It had the power of a declaration in the first movement of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony.

Roman Rabinovich. Illustration by Carolyn Newberger.
Roman Rabinovich. Illustration by Carolyn Newberger.

But as the performance unfolded, with Roman Rabinovich playing a Steinway B piano, seated slightly behind Daniel Phillips, violin, on the left and Yehuda Hanani, cello, to his left; and Xiao-Dong Wang, viola on the right, it was clear that the tonal temperature was equally generated from their unusually warm musical personalities, deeply felt tonal sensibilities, and their relentless focus on creating a generous ensemble sound.

Daniel Phillips played with a sweetness and emotional availability that betrayed the stereotype of the first violinist in a quartet. His attentive listening and concern to support the ensemble was marvelous to behold, especially with the recent memory of the Juilliard Quartet’s South Mountain concert in Pittsfield. There, a new first violinist, without question a monster player, all but blew his colleagues away. Not so here. This was all in service of exalted quartet performance.

Equally, Xiao-Dong Wang made his viola, notable for a keen and focused resonance in a smallish instrument, into a continuously adaptive alto voice, adjusting subtly in every line and chord to the temperature of the harmony and the angle of the melody.

Where Roman Rabinovich’s piano playing was voluble, broadly flowing, and technically astounding across the entire piano range, coloristic in the best sense of this pre-Romantic idiom, and totally at ease with his demanding, featured role, Yehuda Hanani was more modest as a cellist and leader, attending closely to the flow of the counterpoint and, where needed, pulling back or pushing forth the rhythm. Constantly checking in visually with his colleagues, he energized with his bow and caramel cello sound a broad palette of harmonic and rhythmic emphases and accents. Hanani was an embodiment of Lao-Tse, the philosopher of Daoism, who observed that a good leader is the one whose followers, when the job is done, will think they have done it themselves.

At the rising, intense, accelerating finale of the first movement, marked Allegro, the audience burst into applause. This was fully deserved, and probably as Mozart would have wished it. Rather than to maintain straight faces, the members of the quartet smiled and nodded delightedly. This gave a lovely sense of reciprocity to the proceedings, even as the Emily Posts of chamber music might frown at such a violation of concert etiquette.

The second movement is scored as 3/8, but the predominance of two-bar phrases gives it almost, but not quite, a 6/8 sensibility. Which is to say, it didn’t rock, as in a boat, as 6/8 typically does, but breathed in superbly repeated rhythmic segments, with subtle, and affecting, pauses. The melodic expressions, most especially those uttered in pianissimo, moved so gently when the strings were in dialogue with the piano that, abetted by these pauses, they brought tears to one’s eyes. Surely this was mature chamber music performing of the highest order.

The third movement, back in quaternary rhythm, took the form of a dance. And what a dance! Rabinovich surveyed an entire landscape of pianistic devices, arpeggios, runs, bursts of harmonic variation. But he always held back just enough to yield tantalizingly to the leaping, shimmering sonorities in the strings. Hanani’s pedal points provided just the frissons of predictability and uncertainty to offset the rising momentum. Everyone, it was clear, was constantly absorbing, thinking, and urging one another on, with extraordinary brio and control.

After a wonderful, delightful exchange of grace notes between the violin and piano – drawing giggles from the audience – the mood suddenly shifted to minor, with blazing runs up and down the piano, with just a hint of impending tragedy. Shortly, however, a sudden, ambiguous diminished chord served as the pivot from sadness to a lively blossoming of the earlier E flat theme. We, relieved, were then treated to a stunning, majestic resolution, a brilliant ending to an unforgettable encounter with music. Bravi!


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