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Aston Magna at Wethersfield

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Jun 30th, 2018

Edson Scheid and Daniel Stepner

The period instrument ensemble Aston Magna performed for the first time at the Wethersfield Garden Carriage House in Amenia.  The acoustics were excellent, the program unusual. They opened with Dario Castello’s (1590-1658) Sonata 12 as an example of the lively Venetian early Baroque style which prized contrast over melodic development as it featured dramatic riffs of hyper note repetition. While there was some incremental development, this pioneer of the sonata form ended ironically as he had begun: the conclusion was a repetition of the opening tune, as if to say that the first inspiration of the tune was really better than subsequent explorations, and the humor of the ending was indeed satisfactory.

The program was entitled “Dueling Violins, Genial Gambas.” To illustrate the theme of male vanity exploited by the nobly arrogant violin, violinists Edson Scheid and Daniel Stepner dueled with Jean-Marie Leclair’s (1697-1764) “Duo G minor.” Stepner (click here for a brief interview) dominated the opening Allegro in the Venetian style with staccato runs of 1/16th notes while Scheid attempted to develop a competing melody. In the second movement, Aria graziosa, Scheid’s violin dominated with elegant harmony and strong melody. The third movement, Allegro assai, began as confusing draw, but Scheid’s ascension into sinuous harmony let the melody float into abundant grace and left Stepner boxed in a diminished musical corner, trifling with an exhibition of superior but static technique. It was clear that in the high Baroque, the French had gone to the frontier of civilized grace, leaving Venetians in a niche dustbin of history.

While born in Venice, Antonio Caldara (1670-1736) made his career in Spain, Mantua and Barcelona. Here was a robust and attractive court music, as the violin and viola da gamba was joined by a harpsichord expertly played by Michael Sponseller. Caldara’s “Trio Sonata in A major” featured the expansion of the traditional three movements into four: Grace, Allegro, Adagio, Allegro (slow, fast, slow, fast). The dominant instrument was now the keyboard instead of the strings.

Lest we spend too much time in the social world of extroversion, Sainte-Columbe (1640-1700) supplied a more retro-Medieval perspective: a meditation on death. “Tombeau ‘Les Regrets’” offered a somber meditation in three parts: the funeral bells, the meeting with Charon, Tears and regrets, then the happy poetic reversal with the joys of Elysium, that is, the Isles of the Blest. This Parisian salon work, perhaps written for the maestro’s two daughters, offered two genial violas da gamba enjoying pleasant, civilized discourse without competitive male vanity: merely two instruments ardently played by Sarah Cunningham and Laura Jeppesen, conversing and exploring in a genial and attractively intimate manner.

We had traveled from a Basilica in Venice to a French court, then to a Spanish court, and ended in a small salon in Paris: all before intermission.

Catherine Liddell appeared with the theorbo, which has a string neck of about six feet in length. She played “Les Sylvains,” a languid bucolic romance, by Robert de Visée (1655-1733). While this was a pleasant solo that conjured rolling hills and lakes, it was easy to understand why an instrument with limited dramatic thrust had expired.

Sainte-Columbe’s most famous student, Marin Marais (1656-1728), was next with his “Suite in G major” for two violas da gamba. Marais’ music was featured in the soundtrack for the film Tous les matins du monde (1991), which stared Gérard Depardieu as old-man Marais and William Depardieu (Gérard’s oldest son) as the young Marais studying under Saint-Columbe. (I recommend the film.)

The nine-part suite of Marin Marais was played by Cunningham and Jeppesen on two violas da gamba. This was a sensitive abstraction of various dances of the era. There was genuine emotion and gentility in their performance.

Sponseller emerged to play solo harpsichord: “Les Barricades Mystérieuses,” by Francois Couperin, which offered a journey into the invisible world without walls, expanding the walls of the Carriage House into imaginary space.

All players emerged to play and romp with Couperin’s “Sonata á 4: “La Sultane,” an early piece of Orientalism which incorporated fanciful adaptations of Eastern elements that provided a festive send-off into a contemporary world without walls.