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Light and Shade

July 22, 2008

Often the repertoire and locale of summer festivals seem, on first glance, a disconcerting mix, as the music we are used to hearing in a formal concert hall setting doesn’t smoothly combine with bucolic surroundings. This anomaly kept coming to mind while attending the July 16 concert at Napa Valley’s Festival Del Sole, produced at Castello di Amorosa (near Calistoga), which is a replica of a 12th-century Tuscan stone stronghold, with eight levels, which cost untold millions to build. It hosts three of the Festival’s events, and is surely as distictive a setting as there is in Northern California for classical concerts.
Before 450 people, in the Castle’s sun-spotted courtyard, two big repertoire mainstays, featuring two international stars, were preceded by a premiere, Gordon Getty’s Four Dickinson Songs.

The radiant soprano was Lisa Delan, singing with clear diction and chaste phrasing. All four songs had bantamweight endings, with “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” and the famous “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” especially telling. Most of these works lie comfortably in the middle range, and Delan’s narrow vibrato and palpable emotion seemed just right for each. Pianist Kristin Pankonin was an attentive and often forceful accompanist. The composer, seated in the first row, led the applause and accepted many congratulations during the evening. You don’t produce high-end Napa wine and dispense philanthropy without making a lot of friends.
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Closing the first half was Grieg’s Third Violin Sonata in C Minor, Op. 45, with Joshua Bell and stalwart Festival pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Here the naturally good courtyard acoustics were a factor, distinctly direct but lacking in reverberation. Several finches and swallows were in both visual and aural attendance. The opening Allegro molto ed Appassionato was taken at a moderate tempo, and both artists were in the mood for understatement. Balances were never a problem. Unexpectedly, Bell played from score. He is a formidable fiddler, avoiding affectation and much portamento and giving the critical voice leading to his partner.

Fast tempos characterized the middle Allegro movement, with Bell’s deft spiccato bowing faultless in conveying the composer’s rich lyricism. The ending was a lovely, soft, ascending scale pattern with Bell’s shimmering, top-register pianissimo carrying to the top row of seats. The finale found Thibaudet playing convincingly, even covering the violin in the coda with fast and frequently loud scales. It was a performance of high-level musicianship and ardor, lacking only the last ounce of Grieg’s masterful dance poetry.

Rossetti String Quartet

The second half consisted entirely of the imposing Brahms Quintet for Piano and String Quartet, Op. 34. Am I alone in thinking this a work for a formal, winter season concert? Joining Thibaudet was the Rossetti String Quartet, which has played several concerts in San Francisco (see review) and has also gotten a lot of attention in Europe. The group is currently in residence at the Carlsen Music Center in Kansas. They gave a reading of Brahms’ masterpiece that was homogeneous in sound and never in a hurry to get anywhere.

Thibaudet gave the initial Allegro non troppo just enough rhythmic urgency to move things along, and his musical duos with violist Thomas Diener highlighted the stately march of the second movement. Particularly striking was the players’ tonal balance in the concluding poco sostenuto, beginning hauntingly on open strings and then leading through a short fugue to a fast coda. The playing was compelling, the pianist never content with an unaccented phrase and the Rossetti following apace.

It was grand Brahms, as granitic as the massive surrounding castle walls.

Santa Rosa resident Terry McNeill produces classical piano recitals in the three-county Concerts Grand series, and he is currently researching the lives and artistry of keyboard titans Anton Rubinstein and Josef Hoffmann.