Thursday, July 02, 2020 [performance]

Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts

Music Room, Rosen House, Katonah, New York 10536

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

While the United States was in the grips of the Great Depression, Walter Rosen, a Berlin-born international banker specialising in railways, and his wife Lucie, a theremin player from a prominent New York family, built Caramoor – “a home”, Lucie said, “not to be old or new, just to be beautiful. And we built it for music.”

Designed in the Mediterranean style, neither size (25,000 square feet) nor funding a concern, the place is alluring, the grounds are lush, the associations legendary. Initially it hosted private performances, parties, and musical soirées before opening to the public in 1946.

Its year-round music programme and considerable cultural benefaction is now in its seventy-fifth season. With its carved walnut and plaster Italian Renaissance ceiling, sixteenth-century velvet curtains and atmospheric lamps along the walls, the Music Room, seating around 180, is rich in period furniture, Gothic tapestries, and stained glass elements. It boasts a Canaletto too, once prompting the Duke of Windsor, a luncheon guest, to exclaim “we have forty of these”. In 1982 the New York Magazine likened the place to a transplanted Medici palace crossed with Tender is the Night and Brideshead Revisited: “you picture handsome, blue-blooded people … smiling as the afternoon sun streams in from the courtyard … yet, there’s a sadness, thin as vapour, floating through the rooms. This is how Caramoor is … beautiful and still.”

So, to Inon Barnatan and a Covid-19 audience-absent recital surprisingly vexed with failed technology. The scheduled livestream, Thursday, July 2, didn’t happen. Clearly, from the visuals, he was playing – but no sound, then a black offline screen. A webcast twenty-four hours later just about materialised, but only after a fashion and a long wait. The first half was incomplete, catching just the third and final movements of Schubert’s late A-major Sonata, D959, suddenly fading, before the end, to an interval chat with Kathy Schuman, Vice President, Artistic Programming & Executive Producer, formerly the artistic administrator of Carnegie Hall. Putting on a bravely cheerful face, she said another version, free of glitches, would be aired – unavailable at the time of writing.

What I heard of Barnatan’s Schubert I didn’t particularly warm to – a reading with passing niceties of phrasing and touch (the transition into the Scherzo’s da capo, some mid-range voicing in the Finale), but otherwise inclined towards haste if not indifference. It’s all too easy to turn the child-like in Schubert (the rondo refrain) into the glib and facile, hands going through the motions without apparently much rhythmic tension or purpose. The great Schubertians take time to show us other things in these pages, affection and breadth not least.

The focus of the evening was the premiere of Barnatan’s transcription of Rachmaninov’s three Symphonic Dances – a long-standing desire of his made finally possible during recent weeks of lockdown and concert cancellations. The Symphonic Dances were written for Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra between September and October 1940, in harness with Rachmaninov’s own version for two pianos (Long Island, August 10).

Ormandy directed the first performance on 3 January 1941. A couple of weeks before that, at a pre-Christmas gathering in New York, Rachmaninov ran through much of the work for Ormandy’s benefit, playing sections of the three movements out of order. Privately recorded on two double-sided 10-inch acetate discs (University of Pennsylvania, Eugene Ormandy Collection of Test Pressings and Private Recordings, 1930-1983), these extracts were released by Marston Records in 2018 (53022-2) – unearthing an example of “Rachmaninoff’s impromptu playing [that] will probably remain the only document of its kind, an important archaeological artefact to be studied and treasured. It gives us a unique peek into the mind of a great composer and pianist.”

Usefully, Marston coupled Rachmaninov’s random sampling with an edited, de-cluttered montage following the score sequence, effectively giving us six blocks of solo piano reduction, amounting to just over twenty-seven minutes of music (Ormandy’s 1960 recording running to 34). I: (a) bars 1-41; (b) 48- 236; (c) 241-63. II: (d) opening-176; (e) 182-end. III: (f) 8-214.

Plenty of material and ideas then – between these rare off-the-cuff solos and the two-piano and orchestral versions (additionally, if he had access to it, a manuscript solo transcription by the late Israeli pianist Yahli Wagman, 1982-86) – for Barnatan to evolve and clarify a viable pianistic response. The result works well – a technically challenging overview, ranging from the delicate, glycerine-like and frozen to tutti and bravura, the soundworld not that far removed at times from the manner and keyboard layout of the Opus 39 Études-tableaux from Rachmaninov’s last Russian days. It’s a transcription that could gain hold: coupled with an extended (Gilels-style) Petrushka plus Agosti’s Firebird, maybe Feinberg’s Tchaikovsky, it would make a CD package with a difference, nuanced and enticing.

At thirty-four minutes, breaking sweat, Barnatan delivered a performance making no concessions. Not perhaps of the rhythmically tightest – one fancies the younger Russian school taking the fences and champing at the bit with greater muscle and teeth – but with considerable, involved command even so. If the extremities of the first movement seemed lightweight, the central section and the inventive high texture/mid-range voicing at the end found him opening up emotionally.

Despite biggish climaxes, brilliant flourishes and feathered virtuosity to close, the Tempo di valse was arguably on the studied side, never really quite fusing or taking to the ballroom floor. Yet the way passages were bent and moulded into a kind of Slavic valse triste, a Russian ghost dance – Silver Age poets, Akhmatova, never so far away – cast a long-term spell. Virtuosity and sprung fingerwork, cleverly suggested orchestral imagery, underlined the third movement, in the contrasting middle section Barnatan reaching for some fantastical texturing and timing, allusions of golden fields and smoke on the wind laying the day to rest.

On the night his Steinway D didn’t sound in best shape, a thin top end, with tuning issues, and a rather muffled bass region coarsening its pedigree. Never mind. The initiative of putting on such a programme and premiere, providing artists with space and ambience, with time to think and imagine, is what Caramoor stands for. Such enlightened, enriching havens, in these culturally threatened, financially hit times, are needed. I’ll be back.