The Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival, celebrating its 35th season, closed Sunday evening at the Highlands Performing Arts Center with a gala concert featuring two familiar and beloved concertos and a magnificent musical hoax for strings. The hall was packed and so was the small-ish stage, with an orchestra of fifteen string players and a variable number of winds – four for the first work on the program, two oboes and two horns, just what Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had in mind for his Fifth Violin Concerto, K.219, in A.
The soloist for the concerto was the magnificent violinist Andrés Cárdenes, looking like an aristocrat on vacation in his open-collared black shirt and cream-colored tux jacket with the lapel in arrogant disarray. Leading from center stage and only occasionally glancing at notes on a music stand beside him, Maestro Cárdenes started the orchestra at the opening of the work which intriguingly gives us just the accompaniment of the Allegro, minus the theme, which appears only later in the solo violin part. Marked Allegro aperto ("Openly fast"), it is immediately followed by a slow Adagio, initially by the soloist alone but joined subsequently by the entire orchestra for a few subdued measures until the Allegro aperto returns in its complete glory. The Classical concerto almost always leaves room for the soloist to personalize the concerto by means of an often-improvised cadenza (this cadenza by Nathan Milstein), which Cárdenes did with charm and delicacy. He has a beautiful style and tone, no doubt partially thanks to the 1719 P. Guarneri violin he is fortunate to play.
The second movement, Adagio, is much longer than the typical Mozart slow movement, with some lovely suspended chords in the oboes midway through the movement. After a brief cadenza the movement yields to a minuet-like Rondo wherein the principal melody returns frequently, only to sashay forth in quest of new characters. One of these forays has given the whole concerto its popular nickname, "Turkish," due to the section in 2/4 with musical devices very popular in Mozart's day – drum rolls (faked by the lower strings in flying spiccato grace note attacks) and drones in 5ths, thought at that time to be "Turkish." The subtle tempo variations in this movement were breathtaking – rapid and robust for the Turkish section, slightly more gentle than usual when the Rondo returned, a moment of reinforcement and ending with curtsies and gentle adieux. Masterfully done!
Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751) was a great Italian composer of operas and concerti, most of whose manuscripts perished in the Allied bombing of Dresden. However, a six-measure fragment has led to the piece for which Albinoni is best known, the Adagio, actually composed by Remo Giazotto. The combined strings, now 16 with addition of our recent soloist as concertmaster, played the familiar piece we all have attributed to Albinoni. Regardless of the source, this is a gorgeous work – with or without organ!
After reshuffling the stage to bring the grand piano mid-stage and to create room for the extra musicians (flute, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, and timpani) that this sized instrument necessitates, we were privileged to hear the Fourth Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in G, Op. 58, by Ludwig Van Beethoven. Music Director, William Ransom was the soloist, and he shared minor conducting duties with Maestro Cárdenes. Most unusual is the opening of this concerto – it is one of the only concertos to begin with the soloist alone, and with the theme immediately. At the end of this short opening, the strings enter in an otherworldly key of B, returning to the home key of G and proceeding through a formal exposition of both themes as though nothing unusual had preceded it.
This is certainly one of Beethoven's most melodious concertos, inhabiting the same cheerful time period as his Pastoral Symphony, the Violin Concerto, the Appassionata Sonata, and the Rasumovski Quartets. Piano soloist Ransom made the most of the lyrical passages and was a perfect foil for the frequent interchanges with the all-important woodwinds. He played one of the lesser-known cadenzas written by Beethoven himself, with the added inclusion of excerpts from the Mozart violin concerto we had heard earlier – nice touch!
The second movement is a unique and dramatic piece, pitting the frailty of the muted piano against the dotted fury of the massed unison strings – only to conquer them with musical warmth at the soft-spoken apex of the movement. The Finale, a lively Rondo that puts tremendous burdens on celli and double bass in every fast passage, is the cheery closer for the concerto. Beethoven gives long and tricky chromatic scale passages to the soloist as quasi cadenzas in addition to every sort of arpeggiated chord imaginable at that epoch. After an unusual trio for two violas and cello and restatement of the principal themes, we have an full-fledged cadenza, ending typically in trills, which lead us to a slow fading of the principal Rondo theme, which is about to nod off.... Suddenly the soloist springs into an agitated Presto and, with horn calls over more devilry in the lower strings, the concerto comes to a percussive and satisfying full stop! Bravo to soloist Ransom and to the orchestra for an exciting performance!
And Bravo to Music Director Will Ransom, retiring HCCM Festival Board President Kathy Whitehead, and Nancy Gould Aaron, Executive Director, for a highly successful 35th anniversary season!