Boulder Bach Festival unveils the sound of Romanticism
By Peter Alexander
Technical perfection is what musicians strive for in all those hours of practice, but never achieve. In classical music, that perfection would include uncompromised accuracy and control of pitch, and consistency of sound in all registers.
Interestingly, musical instrument makers have aimed for the same qualities, especially the consistency of sound, and they have made great progress over the past 200 years. Much has been gained in the technical capacities and consistency of sound in modern pianos, for example, as well as wind instruments. But much has been lost as well.
What has been lost was demonstrated yesterday (May 15) in a stunningly brilliant performance of the Brahms Horn Trio in E-flat major, op. 40, presented by the Boulder Bach Festival in the Stewart Auditorium in Longmont.
The performance brought together three players: violinist and artistic director of the Bach Festival Zachary Carrettin; pianist Mina Gajic, the festival’s director of education and outreach; and guest artist Thomas Jöstlein playing horn. More crucially, it brought together three instruments that were perfect partners: A violin strung with 19th-century style strings, including pure gut; an 1895 Érard piano; and a natural horn (without valves), made in about 1815. I have never heard a better balanced performance with such disparate instruments.
The Érard, a beautiful example of the piano maker’s craft in the 19th century, was a critical ingredient. With its remarkably transparent, clear and nuanced sound, it paired with the other instrument as no modern piano could. Gajic could play with full commitment and never overwhelm the other players.
Jöstlein’s natural horn was equally critical to the success of the performance. Its smaller bore and restrained sound never overwhelmed the violin, its closest partner throughout the piece, as a modern large-bore horn, built for a big sound and the ability to cut through a modern orchestra, would do.
Both the piano and the horn brought another quality that we have lost: a sound that varies from register to register, or, in the case of the horn, from note to note. Brahms made expressive use of these differences. As Jöstlein demonstrated before the performance, the sound of the horn could be bright and clear in one phrase, muted and distant in another. And one thing you almost never hear today: the natural horn, which changes pitch by the player moving his hand inside the bell, added a snarling quality to some of the crashing chords that could be suddenly resolved into a clear and pure sound.
The differences in sound for Carrettin’s violin were less dramatic, but his choice of natural gut for some strings, steel for the highest string, and wound gut for the lowest, gave the instrument a sound that matched the others.
A fourth partner was the space where the music was performed, the intimate Stewart Auditorium of the Longmont Museum. In an interview before the concert, Carrettin had stressed the importance of the hall: “Stewart Auditorium . . . is 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.”
The combination of a space where everyone felt in close contact with the performers, and instruments that were perfectly matched freed the performers to play with complete commitment. No punches needed to be pulled, no climaxes pushed too hard, no passages held back in the name of balance. I have rarely heard such excitement as Gajic, Carrettin and Jöstlein generated in the last movement.
The Stewart Auditorium crowd—totally sold out with seats added onstage—gave a standing ovation that went well beyond the expected, dutiful “standing o” we get with too much regularity. They knew they had heard something special, and they reacted in a way we do not usually associate with “original instruments” or “historically accurate” performances. They had heard the door opened into an unfamiliar sound world, and they were captivated.
The short program, played without intermission, had opened with Carrettin and Gajic playing a 19th-century arrangement of Bach’s much-loved “Air on the G String.” As Carrettin explained beforehand, violinists at the time were starting to play with continuous vibrato and used far more portamento, or sliding glissandos, than we are accustomed to hearing.
The performance was fascinating, although not to the taste I developed through mid-20th-century training and listening. As the great violinist Fritz Kreisler said appreciatively of that style of playing, it gave melancholy to the music. That’s not the spirit of the original Bach, but it is the spirit of the late 19th century and Carrettin played with passion. I would not have missed the experience.
The remainder of the concert was filled with one Bach aria and three Brahms songs, eloquently rendered by soprano Amanda Balestrieri and Gajic (plus Carrettin on the Bach). Balestrieri’s bright, clear sound was ideal for the well controlled filigree of the Bach aria. The Brahms was sung with exemplary expression of the text, and only the slightest push to the highest notes. The lyrical songs formed a lovely companion to the more intense Horn Trio.
As this concert shows, Boulder County now has such musical riches that revelation can strike in almost any concert. This may be a golden age. If you have any interest in classical music, don’t let it pass you by.