It's hard to realize that the legendary Newport Music Festival is coming up on its 40th anniversary next year. Founded in 1969 as a summer adjunct to the regular (New York) Metropolitan Opera season, the Festival soon established an identity of its own, with solo and chamber performances inhabiting some of the impressively stately mansions that make up the Rhode Island community. This impressive, though pricey, Connoisseur's Collection from the 2007 season provides a really nice mix of warhorses (sometimes in unusual instrumental settings) and lesser known pieces performed by a similar mix of new talent and seasoned professionals who are legends themselves. Each disc contains both a main program, usually unified by either composer, performing artist, or genre of music, and a bonus performance, sometimes rather tangentially related to the main program. This massive 10 disc collection includes:
Disc One. Pianist Adam Golka, an acclaimed 20 year old American making his Newport debut, kicks off the proceedings with a not very technically demanding Schubert Sonata which nonetheless provided a surprisingly well chosen transition, via its dance-like third movement, to the more formidable Mazurkas of Chopin. While the rest of Golka's program vascillates between well-known composers like Schumann and lesser known writers like Medtner, the highlight for me was the fabulously beautiful (and technically severe) Sonata No. 1 of Nikolai Kapustin, a 20th century Russian artist with feet planted firmly in both the classical and jazz traditions. This piece begins with an incredible flourish with a jazzy major seventh-laden first movement, then moves on to a parallel block chord second movement, a percussive scherzo third and a simply incredible fireworks-filled allegro finale that was both incredibly lyrical and rhythmically propulsive. Imagine Keith Jarrett waxing lyrical on a formidably classical Russian palette (without some of the pretension that sometimes adorns Jarrett's own classical pieces) and you have a good idea of the aural pleasures for you in store here. Golka's touch is precise and fluid, with long langorous lines alternating among fiery staccato passages that are the hallmark of a master's technique. The visual presentation is also nicely varied, with a two camera setup that captures both Golka's amazing fingerwork, as well as his usually calm demeanor from the other angle (that demeanor cracks just momentarily under the duress of some of the more demanding passages of the Kapustin especially).
Bonus. The bonus performance on this disc is a haunting Rachmaninoff Trio Eligiaque No. 2 in D Minor for cello, violin and piano. While the performance is exemplary, this extra suffers from a one-camera static setup, which is additionally hampered by an awkward placement within what looks to be a very small and crowded performance venue.
Disc Two. French superstars Jean-Philippe Collard (piano) and Henri Demarquette (cello) are featured on this disc, which opens with Chopin's gorgeous Sonata in B minor. After Golka's completely memorized program, purists may gasp (but only in a genteel, Newport-approved manner) at seeing these artists play with music, but the fact is as the series continues, the bulk of players do in fact use scores. There's some superb interplay, though I was a little surprised to hear some brief sloppiness in the Scherzo by Collard. The two follow this with Schubert's Sonata in A minor, full of the delightful melodies for which the Austrian is rightly remembered, and highlighted by an especially playful Allegretto third movement. Collard then takes center stage from some prodigious performances of piano pieces by Chopin, highlighted by the ferociously difficult Ballade No. 4 in F Minor.
Bonus. The impossibly young duo of Eugen Tichindeleanu (violin) and Daniel del Pino (piano) tackle the Faintaisie in C Major by Schubert, a posthumously published piece with some beautifully lyrical high passages that Tichindeleanu handles with ease. Even worse visual presentation is unfortunately the hallmark of the filming here, with the camera placed far in the back of the hall (finally zooming in relatively closer).
Disc Three. This disc offers the cutesy title Lisztnening Post, though pianist Kevin Fitz-gerald starts off with a Liszt adaptation of about the most anti-Liszt composer imaginable, the irrepressible Mozart, essaying At the Sistine Chapel, which utilizes sections of Mozart's relatively dark piece Ave Verum. Michael Endres then tackles Liszt arrangements of Schumann. Craig Sheppard elicits a laugh from the audience when he uses his handkerchief to wipe off the sweat left on the keys before he launches into Liszt's take on Isolde's Love Death by Wagner, finishing up with Liszt's gorgeous Paraphrase of Verdi's 'Rigoletto'. We finally get some unadorned, unadapted Liszt, and some incredible Liszt at that, with St. Francis of Assisi Preaching to the Birds from Legendes, performed by Grigorios Zamparas on the piano. With its finely wrought trill work and superb chromatic passages it brings birdsong to pianistic life. Alain Jacquon follows with one of Liszt's most famous works, the Liebestraums 1-3, followed by Forest Murmurs, Dance of the Gnomes (with its omnipresent and playful minor seconds). Note how on these ferociously difficult pieces Jacquon has the music on the stand but doesn't look at it at all. It's nice to have a safety net. The main performance ends with Daniel del Pino performing Spanish Rhapsody. One doesn't normally think of Lizst working the Iberian idiom as did some of his contemporaries, but this is a very evocative piece.
Bonus. Of interest to film score fans, Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Piano Trio in D Major Op. 1, written when he was only thirteen, is offered. While not a mature piece by any means (the spasmodic opening especially has some problems), you can still hear hints of the major film composer to come.
Disc Four. We actually get some artist asides on this disc devoted to the all-female Colorado Quartet, with various members talking both about their personal histories and those of the pieces they play. Starting out with Haydn's String Quartet No. 3, subtitled the Kaiser Variations, they relay some interesting anecdotes of Haydn having heard God Save the Queen while in England and wanting his native Austria to have a similar anthem. That composition became, of course, Deutschland Uber Alles, which pops up in various guises throughout this piece. They then launch into a spirited reading of Beethoven's A Major quartet, finishing up with one of Dvorak's great works, the String Quartet No. 14.
Bonus. The women tackle another Dvorak, this time No. 12 in F, this time in the Elms Lawn Tent, which creates some contrast problems due to bright sunlight. There's also more unfortunate awkward camera placement, with two of the players with their backs to the camera.
Disc Five finally presents some vocal music with Valerie Wilson Morris, soprano, and the always fun John Bayless, piano, performing Mozart. Bayless starts things off with one of his patented improvisations on an existing theme, this time the famous First Movement of Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 7. He follows this up with the Overture to The Magic Flute. I'm not sure if Morris was simply nervous or perhaps had not warmed up properly, but her opening piece, Der Holle Rache from The Magic Flute, was hampered by some horribly strident head tones. She seemed to find her vocal footing for the rest of her recital, though she still tended to do better with lower, chest tones in legato slow passages, rather than some of the florid allegri she attempted. There's a fun duet between Morris and Bayless, this time "singing" (or something akin to that) on Papapa Papagena from The Magic Flute. Next, Hector Olivera gives a Roland Atelier Organ a workout on Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, though way too much time is spent watching him set stops and futz with the touchscreen. Though the Roland is one of the newest generations of organs utilizing samples, brass sounds fare much better than strings, which frankly sound cheesy and synthesized. By far the most fun of this disc is the next sequence, which features Bayless going comedic imagining various composers tackling more modern tunes, as in Beethoven writing Embraceable You (in minor). He takes several stylistic/composer requests from the audience, though his attempt to have Dave Brubeck "compose" Strauss' Blue Danube actually sounds more like Bill Evans, not that there's anything wrong with that. Bayless then finishes up with a Postlude on Mozart themes and a very nice melding of Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring with Amazing Grace.
Bonus. Alain Jacquon and Grigorios Zampara get some aerobic exercise in a two piano workout of Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances in the Rosecliff Tent, again hampered visually by extremely poor contrast due to bright sunlight.
Disc Six offers an assortment of duos and trios, most with Kevin Fitz-gerald at the piano, though the disc's title "All in the Family" gives a clue that four of the performers are related to each other (violinist Jennifer Frautschi and horn player Eric Ruske, and violinists Geoff Nuttall and Livia Sohn). This odd assortment of pieces includes some composers few have probably heard of, like Theodore Dubois and Joseph Holbrooke, mixed with evergreens like Edvard Grieg and Mozart. The Holbrooke, which I had never heard before, for horn, violin and piano offers beautiful timbres and textures in an unusually melodic environment.
Bonus. Granados' Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano, full of that Spanish composer's highly individual, quasi-impressionistic piano harmonies and long, languid melodic lines for the strings, is performed by Frautschi, del Pino and cellist Jiri Barta. Once again awkward camera placement hampers the visual presentation.
Disc Seven. You'd think that a set that prides itself on cute disc names and set lists would have made the disc featuring octets (either in terms of two pianos-eight hands or eight pieces in larger chamber settings) the eighth in the set, but it's the seventh here, playfully titled "Pieces of Eight". Herold's Overture to Zampa and Moscheles' Grand Duo both provide plenty of piano fireworks, though because of each piano holding two players it's virtually impossible to see any of the finger movements. Max Bruch's 1920 Octet for Strings is positively Brahmsian at times, followed by Mendelssohn's pulsating String Octet. Brasilian composer Villa-Lobos' Piano Trio features the dense contrapuntal writing that he is so known for, with watery impressionistic moments on the keyboard.
Bonus. Villa-Lobos gets more airtime with his lovely and at times pointillistic Piano Trio No. 1 in C Minor, performed by Tichindeleanu, Demarquette and Zamparas. The camera set-up places Zamparas almost totally behind Tichindeleanu, unfortunately.
Disc Eight is entitled "Festival Gala" and features Indonesian pianist Eduardus Halim performing some nice Schumann pieces, including the famous Waldscenen (Forest Scenes). The pieces alternate between introspective lyricism and fiery pyrotechnics, allowing Halim to show his virtuosity and thoughtfulness in a very appealing light. Schumann, who tends toward less flashy pianism than Liszt, provides Halim with opportunities for some lovely theme-spinning in a relatively sedate harmonic setting, though Schumann awakes from his relative slumber every so often to erupt in some volcanic passages.
Bonus. Halim again steps up to the ivories, this time performing several opuses from Liszt's Transcendental Etudes. These are on the quiet side for Liszt, as you might imagine from their title, though there is plenty of relatively mild-mannered fireworks to keep Halim's fingers very busy at times.
Disc Nine is full of mostly light, playful chamber pieces by such lesser-known composers as Johann Hummel and Henri Wienlawski, mixed in with some more lyrical moments by such stalwarts as Edward Elgar. The Bravura Waltz by brothers Karl Doppler and Franz Doppler (not of Doppler Effect fame) starts off fairly tamely but erupts in some nice trilling passages that put Amanda Baker and Goran Marcusson through their paces. In fact there are some rapid parallel passages that will remind some listeners of Richard Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel.
Bonus. Though he never attained the front rank status of a lot of his better known 19th century keyboard contemporaries, English-Scotch composer Henry Charles Litolff was an undisputed piano virtuoso, which his lovely Grand Trio (featuring Jacqoun on piano, Frautschi on violin and Barta on cello) ably proves.
Disc Ten. Titled "Best of the Fest," this disc offers a sampling from three concerts. Starting with the two piano Sonata in D Major by Mozart performed by Fitz-gerald and Pedja Muzijevic, the concert then continues on to Chopin's incredible Rondo in C Major for Two Pianos. Starting with a relatively slow statement of the main theme, Chopin then takes the pianists for a lovely lyrical ride through restatements, sending the strands of the theme ricocheting between the two keyboards. Michael Endres then performs two slighter works by Gottschalk. The third element of this disc is a superlative reading of Bach's Two-Part and Three-Part Inventions by Craig Sheppard, making his Newport debut. As any burgeoning pianist can tell you, the clarity of Bach's lines in these pieces is not won by easy fingering, but Sheppard's brilliant playing here makes Bach's miniature fugues spin out as clear as a mountain brook.
Bonus. Muzijevic brings this massive collection to a close with an authoritative reading of Schubert's Piano Sonata in A minor (D 537).