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Ionarts in Siena: Antonio Meneses

It would not have been in character for me to do anything but hear music on my last night in Siena. After a short bus trip into the Sienese countryside, we arrived at the unspeakably beautiful monastery of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, near Asciano. Perched like a fortress on a long ridge, this Benedictine abbey is visible through a cloak of pine trees only because of its slender campanile and tall crenellated walls. As we arrived, the abbot and a few monks were in the courtyard in front of the church to greet us, as a reminder that hospitality to guests is an important part of the Rule of St. Benedict ("Let all guests who arrive be received as Christ, because He will say: "I was a stranger and you took Me in" -- Chapter 53). The abbey bells tolled a few minutes later, summoning more monks from the cloister. Although we had arrived after the conclusion of Compline, only a few stayed up late to listen to the music.

Antonio Meneses:
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Schubert/Schumann (2007)

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Bach Suites (2005)

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Cellissimo (2002)

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Brahms Double Concerto (1993)
Cellist Antonio Meneses and pianist Gérard Wyss gave this recital in the open-air court of a building next to the monastery. With the performers on a platform in front of the back wall, the acoustics were not perfect, but the wind and sounds of ringing bells did not interfere too much with one of the most exquisite concerts during my time in Italy. Perhaps the performers were affected as I was by the location, but the introspective first movement of the opening work, the Brahms op. 38 cello concerto, has never sounded so calm and peaceful. In this performance, the work was a series of small, monastic epiphanies, moments of quiet transformation, with none of the driven qualities of the recently reviewed recording by Hélène Grimaud and Truls Mørk. A leggiero second movement and rather severe, contrapuntal third movement -- accompanied poetically by the tolling of the abbey bells -- were equally well served by Wyss's favoring of a dry, lightly pedaled sound, which allowed Meneses' gentle tone to shine.

Ionarts in Italy:

*Giuliano Carmignola (July 21)

Istituto Superiore di Studi Musicali "Rinaldo Franci" (July 17)

*Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (July 14)

*Concerto Italiano, Monteverdi's Orfeo (July 11)

*Cappella della Pietà de' Turchini (July 10)

*Fabio Vacchi, La Madre del Mostro (July 8)

Istituto Superiore di Studi Musicali "Rinaldo Franci" (July 5)

Staatskapelle Berlin, Mahler Seventh Symphony (July 4)

Staatskapelle Berlin, Mahler Fifth Symphony (July 3)

La Fura dels Baus, Die Walküre (June 29)

La Fura dels Baus, Das Rheingold (June 27)
The somewhat youthful first sonata was bookended by the much more Brahmsian second sonata (op. 99), composed some 20 years later. Except for a single dropped passage in the first movement, Wyss again proved himself a hyper-subtle player, technically secure but always shading each line with finesse, making him a good match musically for Meneses. The tempi were well chosen to showcase the prowess of the duo, with shimmering fast movements, especially the superlative scherzo, balanced by a luscious second movement. Sandwiched between the Brahms selections was what could almost pass for a third Brahms sonata, Richard Strauss's youthful assay of the genre, the F major sonata, op. 6. While it may be technically a work of juvenilia (Strauss composed it at age 19), the piece received a sympathetic performance here, with a formal, Brahmsian first movement and earnest, somberly tragic slow movement. Only in the third movement do we catch a glimpse of the mature Strauss, the dramatic composer who loved a story. In this performance, the rondo's main theme seemed to be conceived as a young hero in a series of picaresque adventures, a good-hearted jokester who laughs off the love serenades and dreamy moments.

Two charming encores sent the crowd into the night with very different flavors in their ears, beginning with Gaspar Cassadó's Requiebros, recorded by the two performers on their disc of encore pieces for the cello, Cellissimo. Its technical flair seemed to call for something lighter -- as Meneses, who teaches at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena, put it in very good Italian, "qualche cosa leggiera dopo questo programma pesante." The final piece was a short, melancholy work by Francisco Mignone, like Meneses born in Brazil, a shady and sultry miniature that closed a magnficent evening of music in an extraordinary place.

The Accademia Musicale Chigiana has again proven that its summer concert series is among the best in Europe. The main competition also reviewed here, the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, is larger and perhaps more star-studded, but it was the Chigiana concerts in and around Siena that provided some of the most delectable musical moments of my summer (the Chigiana concert reviews have been marked with a star in the table). This is in no small part due to the guidance of Guido Burchi, whose excellent and informative program notes were featured at many of these concerts and who made my attendance possible. Prof. Burchi, who teaches in Siena, is reportedly at work on a biography of Count Guido Chigi Saracini, who founded the famous Sienese institution that bears his name and gave his own palace as its home. The Count left an archive of some 40,000 letters. That will surely be a fascinating book.

The Accademia Musicale Chigiana's 76th Estate Musicale Chigiana continues through the month of August, with the highlight surely being the Chopin-Schumann recital by Maurizio Pollini in Siena's Teatro dei Rozzi (August 12, 9:15 pm). We wish we could be there.

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