In Longmont, J.S. Bach shares the program with Brahms songs and Horn Trio
By Peter Alexander
Zachary Carrettin, artistic director of the Boulder Bach Festival, has an apparently inexhaustible supply of surprises.
He and the festival have offered Bach in many different guises—on historical instruments, on traditional modern instruments with a full-sized symphony, on electronic instruments—always revealing new discoveries. And now they are heading down one of the most well traveled paths in the concert repertoire, the music of Romanticism.
You might think that era would not hold many surprises today, but the festival’s next concert—5 p.m. Sunday, May 15, in the Stewart Auditorium of the Longmont Museum (tickets)—promises to present “Romanticism Unveiled.” The program features the Horn Trio in E-flat of Johannes Brahms played on historical—that is, Romantic-era—instruments, as well as a familiar piece by Bach in a late-19th-century arrangement, and several Brahms songs.
Performers will be Carrettin, playing a modern violin but with types of strings that would have been used in Brahms’s lifetime; pianist Mina Gajic playing her straight-strung 1895 Érard piano; horn player Thomas Jöstlein playing a 19th-century natural horn; and soprano Amanda Balestrieri applying what is known of 19th-century vocal style.
The Brahms Horn Trio is a fairly well known work, but as Carrettin explains, today it is usually played on modern instruments, including a valved horn and a grand piano. “There is content in this music that is revealed when it is played on the instruments of the time,” he says. “So we are unveiling some of the colors, and some of the meaning in the music that is different when played on the original instruments.”
Carrettin admits that the modern instrument are technologically advanced, and in some ways easier to play than older versions of the same instruments. At the same time, though, the older instruments reveal aspects of the music that modern instruments may conceal—or veil from view.
“When you open the can of worms with period instruments, you have to explore different techniques, different intonation, different balance, and also (different) phrasing,” he says. “The instruments teach you how they want to be played. Certain things are possible and other things are more difficult.”
Gajic’s Érard piano was made in Paris in 1895. It is straight strung, meaning that the strings all run parallel, which creates a different sound from the modern cross-strung grand piano. The Érard is clearer than the modern piano, and each register has its own sound. (Read my earlier description of this piano here.)
Carrettin will play his modern violin, which is essentially the same as the violins of Brahms’s era, but with strings that reflect 19th-century practice. “I’m using a combination of gut, wound gut and steel strings,” he says. “I’ll have (natural) gut wound in silver on the G, and I’m still playing with all other options. Typically for this kind of setup my two middle strings are pure gut, not wound, (with a steel E string).”
Another issue you may not have thought of is the use of a chin rest. In the Baroque and early classical era, violinists did not have chin rests, but during Brahms’s lifetime chin rests were in wide use. “One day I practice with no chin rest, which gives the violin a rounder, darker sound. The next day I practice with the chin rest which gives the violin more focus,” Carrettin says. The decision to use the chin rest will depend on how the violin sounds with the other instruments.
The third member of the trio, Jöstlein, will be playing a natural horn, without valves. Even though the valved horn that we know today had been invented during Brahms’s lifetime, it was not the composer’s first choice. “He played (natural horn) as a child and always preferred it over the pistons and valves,” Carrettin says. “He wrote all four symphonies with the natural horn in mind.”
As principal horn of the St. Louis Symphony, Jöstlein has plenty of experience on the modern instruments, but he also owns and performs widely on natural horns from the 18th and 19th centuries. For “Romanticism Unveiled,” he will play a horn from about 1815 that he purchased in Europe.
Other works on the program will include a 19th-century arrangement of Bach’s “Air on the G string” for violin and piano. “We’ve talked so much in our concerts about electric violins and Baroque violins and Steinway pianos and harpsichords,” Carrettin says. “We typically have modern instruments and Baroque instruments, but this is the first time the Bach Festival has played Bach on 19th-century Romantic instruments with a style influenced by research on Romantic chamber music style.”
To fill out the Romantic program, Balestrieri will sing an aria from Bach’s cantata BWV 196 and three Brahms songs with piano. “Amanda is the perfect artist for this program,” Carrettin says. “She has spent her career performing with period and modern instruments and in a variety of historically informed styles.”
He is particularly pleased to be performing music from the 19th century in a smaller facility. “We’re performing in the beautiful Stewart Auditorium of the Longmont Museum,” he says. “It’s a 250-seat hall. It’s very much a salon setting, so we don’t have to worry about projecting to a 3,000 seat house. That has in it an authenticity in the way that we can craft the interpretation.”
It all adds up to an unusual opportunity for local audiences, Carrettin says. “It’s a rare thing to hear Romantic period chamber music on original instruments in this part of the country,” he says.
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Boulder Bach Festival
Zachary Carrettin, violin
Mina Gajic, piano (Érard, 1895)
Thomas Jöstlein, natural horn
Amanda Balestrieri, soprano
Program includes several short selections by J.S. Bach, Lieder by Brahms, and the Brahms Horn Trio in E-flat major, op. 40, performed on Romantic-era instruments
5 p.m. Sunday, May 15
Stewart Auditorium at the Longmont Museum, Longmont
5/12/16 Edited for grammar