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Hotchkiss Portals Excels

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Jul 17th, 2016

Oxana Yablonskaya at Elfers Hall, Hotchkiss School.

Oxana Yablonskya, one of the most illustrious pianists in the world, opened Thursday night’s Portals festival at Hotchkiss School with Christoph Gluck’s Melodie from Orfeo ed Euridice (1774), which sounded marvelously sophisticated for its day.

There was a cerebral lightness to Yablonskaya’s performance of Beethoven’s Op. 17, nicknamed “The Tempest,” due to the ferocity of several movements. He wrote this piece when he first became aware of his growing deafness. The opening Largo Allegro presents a ponderous melancholy that grows more somber until it erupts in thunderous rolling arpeggios that sound shockingly ominous. The drama of this upheaval appears to mimic Beethoven’s growing awareness that he will become deaf. Chords of angst roar.

The following Adagio travels back in time to Beethoven’s earliest memories on music: some simple childhood melodies that attracted him as a child; a drum-roll-like announcement that music will be his aim in life; his early difficulties in learning to play the piano dramatized by unusual long notes and far-reaching melodic jumps, as if dramatizing Beethoven’s early attempts at wresting with playing and composition; intense, lonely chords illustrate the difficulty of creating what’s new. The recapitulation somehow manages to weave all these divergent strands together into a magic multicolored robe that announces his mastery of compositional forms with a youthful, meditative, melodic glow. From being a child entranced by the lure of music, he has traced his struggle and mastery of the art.

The concluding Allegro opens with what has been called thundering hooves and moves on to celebrate other elemental sounds Beethoven will no longer hear in the near future. A mood of resignation grows stronger and more accepting of his tragic fate. Hypnotic ostinato 1/16 notes announce his desire to compose with passion in the face of deafness. This was Beethoven’s most personal, interior composition to date. And as such, the secrets of Op. 17 are like a message in a bottle cast into the sound board of history. It is one of the great Romantic landmarks of Homeric resolve and heroic defiance of life’s limitations.   

I’ve heard recordings of Op. 17 before, yet Yablonskaya’s performance released this shivering revelation to me. She played three Liszt arrangements of Schubert songs with power and pianistic virtuosity.

After intermission Yablonskaya played nothing but Chopin: three mazurkas, three lilting yet complex nocturnes, a gorgeous barcarole, and Chopin’s eccentric and mesmerizing waltz in B flat for encore. (Thank you, Nancy Brown.) This was an unforgettable concert.

Yablonskaya had flown from Spain that day to play at Hotchkiss. She had a cold. She could have canceled but did not.

On Saturday night Fabio and Gisele Witkowski performed an all-Brahms program with the Amernet Quartet who are in residence at Florida International University in Miami. Gisele played piano with Misha Vitenson on violin, Michael Klotz on viola, and Jason Calloway on cello; the performed Quartet for Piano and Strings , No. 3, in C minor, Op. 60. While they were not quite together at the opening, they quickly melded into unity in this wonderful piece that dramatizes the great and frustrated love Brahms had for Clara Schumann. The obsessive nature of the piece with repeated accumulation of passionate repetition was intensely Schumannesque; the performers foreground this quality, especially Misha Vitenson on violin and Gisele Witkowski on piano.  

Quintet for Piano and Strings in F minor, Op. 34 followed with sturm und drang. At the conclusion of the opening Allegro, the heavens tossed down a thrumming waterfall that drummed on Elfers Hall, yet the tempest was over by the Finale of the fourth movement with Fabio Witkowski excelling in the fierce concluding Presto. Like the intense storm, this work remains prolific with themes, passions, and disorientating obsessions, but all are dominated by wizard-like artistry.