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Encounter with Stradivari: Châteauville Foundation’s 10th Anniversary

Tokyo String Quartet, photo by Peter Checchia
Lorin and Dietlinde Maazel hosted the 10th anniversary celebration of the Theater House on the property of their Virginia farm, the base of the Châteauville Foundation’s activities. Sunday afternoon’s events were a fundraiser for the Castleton Residencies, a superb program bringing young artists to live and work intensively with mentors to produce chamber opera. From the collection owned by the Nippon Music Foundation – Maazel is chair of the instrument loan committee – a dozen Stradivarius instruments and recipients were on location.

The high points of the concert were the lush reading of Webern’s Langsamer Satz by the Tokyo String Quartet and a meticulous reading of Mendelssohn’s Octet led by Tokyo Quartet and friends. Showcasing the “Paganini Quartet” of instruments, the nickname of the four Stradivarius instruments once owned by Paganini, Langsamer Satz featured indulgent Romanticism at its best. With an impressive softness, the quartet targeted and exploited dissonance to their advantage. The second muted section features a sweet viola line accompanied by pizzicato. Paganini was supposedly so impressed with this particular viola that he commissioned Berlioz to write Harold in Italy for it. Additionally, since only about a dozen were made, hearing a Stradivarius viola is a much rarer pleasure than one of his 600 to 700 violins. However, the gentle, descending-triplet motif was never quite natural enough, and the quartet’s super-wide approach to vibrato was indeed excessive as it often prevented harmonies from fully locking, which brings us to the gut string vs. steel string issue: Do players of steel-stringed instruments overly use vibrato to compensate for the supposed lack of overtones compared to gut strings? Should these historic instruments even have steel strings on them?

The Mendelssohn Octet’s opening themes subtly surged through the full texture since players with less important lines politely moved aside for more important ones. First violinist Martin Beaver did an excellent job leading the ensemble in terms of flexible tempi, perfectly coordinated dynamics, and phrasing. Full of details, the rising 5-6 motion in the Andante movement was very poetic, while the Scherzo and Presto were clear and never pushed beyond control in terms of tempi and volume. The musicians, as with the audience, appeared to enjoy the long pedal point in the final movement. What a great work to in which to showcase strings.

Other Reviews:

Daniel Ginsberg, Chateauville Foundation Benefit (Washington Post, October 9)
The beginning of the program contained two Duos for Violin and Viola of Mozart that were very Romanticized in interpretation and often lacked coordination and perhaps rehearsal time. Violinist Viviane Hagner’s “Sasserno” instrument had richness and depth through its high upper range. Unfortunately, Hagner often did not give any silence between variations in the Duo No. 2 in B-flat and often lacked rhythmic definition.

Sarasate’s Navarra for two Violins did not come off very well. Placing two talented soloists (Sayaka Shoki on the “Joachim” instrument and Arabella Steinbacher on the “Booth”) side by side and expecting them play together quickly in unison turned out to be rather optimistic. The high glissandi and virtuosic passages were all experienced with an echo effect, except for the flashy ending, which was obviously well-rehearsed. One was appreciative that the program ended strongly with the Webern and Mendelssohn.

The next concert at the Châteauville Foundation's exclusive venue in Castleton Farms, Va., is the recital by baritone Nathan Gunn, rescheduled after a cancellation for a week from Sunday (October 21, 4 pm). The program is one-half Mozart and Schubert and one-half American songs by Moore, Ives, and others.

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