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Dual Piano-Organ Concert at Smithfield Church

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Jun 2nd, 2019

Francesco Attesti on 1866 Steinway in Smithfield Church

At Smithfield Church in Amenia this past Saturday two notable keyboard artists from Italy played on three keyboards: an 1866 Steinway (the first year they were called Steinway), an 1893 Johnson tracker-organ, and a contemporary Yamaha digital. Pianist Francesco Attesti from Cortona and Matteo Galli from Milan played their integrated arrangements of piano and organ, including a new American premiere of a famous work by Antonio Vivaldi. This was a most unusual concert format and quite novel experience.

They opened with two Mozart opera overtures: The Magic Flute (1791) and Don Giovanni (1787). While I love the former opera (if performed properly—the best video version still being Ingmar Bergman’s 1975 film) and am most thrilled by the comedy and tragedy of the latter, I don’t think their overtures (unlike most Mozart overtures) to be especially exciting; their finales remain fabulous.

The concert really took off when Attesti played Franz Schubert’s Impromptu, Op. 90, no. 2 in E-flat major on the period Steinway with lively éclat in the opening triplet melodies. Attesti was adept in extracting a darker, mysterious mood in the middle movement, and returning in the final movement to such extroverted celebration as it concludes, quite spectacularly, in a parallel minor (E-flat minor). Attesti’s fluid fingers made the old Steinway sing.

Matteo Galli, principle organist at the Basilica of Milan, performed Fantasy and Fugue in G-minor, BWV 542 by J.S. Bach on the Johnson tracker-organ. This 1720 composition on a Dutch theme is thought to be an improvisation, improvisation being what Galli is famous for in Italy. Franz Liszt so admired this work that he arranged it for piano. Galli sounded as if he had been playing this organ for years, coaxing warmth, irony, and humor from the organ amid its often-frenetic tempo.

Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (1720-25) may be the most-often performed program piece in the classical repertoire. Attesti and Galli played a new arrangement of the famous opening movement, “Spring.” Although I was skeptical of the concept itself, their arrangement was quite successful as they captured the bucolic ambiance of frolicking Spring. The intertextuality of the digital Yamaha and Johnson tracker delivered a dexterous blend, preserving the lightness and humor of the work with the song of birds, goats, spring downpour, dances of shepherds, etc. This arrangement was triumph with legs.

On the Steinway Attesti performed Mozart’s famous Rondò alla Turca from Sonata No. 11 (1723). While difficult to perform, this remains one of Mozart’s most frequently performed and recorded works. Attesti was able to capture the raucous, extroverted, rollicking amusement with a hint of winking irony. I’ve heard this performed on a modern Steinway with contemporary Hz settings of 440Hz, but Mozart composed it for 432Hz and on this old antique Mozart’s humor shone amid the impish dexterity that the music demands.

Galli performed an improvisation beginning and ending with the traditional hymn “We are One in the Spirit.” The arc of Galli’s composition traversed many moods and toward the conclusion he conjured some of the most humorous notes I have ever heard an organ utter.

Back on the digital Yamaha and organ, they performed their dual arrangement of the overture to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, followed by the overture from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. These are perhaps the two most famous overtures in opera; their dual organ-piano arrangement was a resounding success, receiving a standing ovation. They played two short encores. A meet and greet reception in the basement followed with refreshments.

This concert is part of an ongoing series made possible by the Bang Family to encourage area residents to hear an eclectic line-up of top regional and international artists; this series of four concerts a year, two in spring and two in fall, occur on the first Saturday of a month. Smithfield Church expects to host The Sherman Ensemble on Thursday August 8th in the evening.