With glass armonica, it's K. 617 as Mozart intended

September 16, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Like much music written for now obsolete (or rare) instruments -- Schubert's "Arpeggione" Sonata and Haydn's huge output for baryton come to mind -- Mozart's Adagio and Rondo for glass armonica, flute, oboe, viola and cello (K. 617) is almost never heard in its original instrumentation.

Flutist Emily Skala deserves credit, therefore, for inviting the Boston-based musician, Carolinn Skyler, and her glass armonica, to participate in Skala's concert Tuesday evening. The first concert this season in Peabody Conservatory's Sylvia Adalman artist recital series, it was also the first opportunity most of us in the audience had to hear Mozart's final chamber-music masterpiece as the composer intended it.

Mozart's K. 617 sounds lovely enough when the glass armonica's part is taken by celeste or organ. But Mozart knew exactly what he was doing when he took time out from composing "The Magic Flute" in 1791 to write this quintet for the leading glass armonica player of the day, Marianne Kirchgassner.

The instrument, which had been invented 30 years earlier by Benjamin Franklin, consists of a row of glass bowls of graded sizes fixed on a horizontal spindle that is made to rotate by a treadle. Sound is produced by gently rubbing the fingers on the wetted rims of the glasses. When this difficult instrument is played skillfully -- as it was by Skyler -- its delicate, ethereal tones sound like a message from another galaxy.

Heard over an extended span, such sounds might become monotonous. Mozart's stroke of genius was to let it sound intermittently. The result were traces of unimaginable beauty, intensity and inwardness sprinkled throughout the lovely, but earthier, tones of the rest of the ensemble -- in which Skyler and Skala were joined by violist Richard Field, oboist Jane Marvine and cellist Ann Marie Morgan.

Skala, the principal flutist of the Baltimore Symphony, is a genuine virtuoso; she possesses a beautiful, powerful sound, superb intonation and a long sense of phrase. But in the rest of the program, as she did in the Mozart, she consistently drew attention to the music rather than to herself. This was true even of her almost flabbergastingly brilliant account of Francis Poulenc's Sonata for flute and piano.

She played the work with zest and character, making the opening movement sweetly beguiling, revealing a deep vein of feeling in the second movement and dispatching the mischievous finale with acrobatic joy.

She clearly likes to work with strong partners on equal terms. The lid of Kirsten Taylor's instrument was fully raised, which allowed the pianist's imaginative, spirited playing to make the performance of the Poulenc all the more persuasive.

Although almost forgotten today, Carl Reinecke (1824-1910) was a major figure in the musical life of Germany. He was the chief conductor of Leipzig's Gewandhaus Orchestra and director of its famous conservatory, and his music was much admired by composers such as Mendelssohn and Schumann.

Reinecke's Sonata for flute and piano ("Undine"), with which Skala and Taylor concluded the program, came as something of a discovery. In its warm lyricism, it bears similarities to Mendelssohn, Schumann and, especially, Brahms. Yet the Reinecke Sonata cannot be mistaken for the work of another composer, Strongly chromatic and deftly contrapuntal, its eloquence, personality and sense of drama are all its own. Skala's vigorous, sensitive performance was admirably partnered by Taylor.

The program opened with a selection of arias by Bach and Handel, in which Linda Mabbs' pure, sweet soprano, effortlessly controlled, received superb support from Skala, Morgan and harpsichordist-organist Webb Wiggins.

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