Barns: Superb Atos Quartet, ‘Winterreise,’ Brentano Quartet next

PR images of Atos Trio and Ryan McKinny courtesy Wolf Trap. Composite by T. Ponick.

VIENNA, Va., March 21, 2014 – As colder weather arrives in the fall, Wolf Trap’s outdoor venue, the Filene Center goes dark for its long winter’s nap, hibernating until late each following spring when it once again awakens for it big summer season. But on the other side of the Dulles Toll Road, Wolf Trap’s smaller, lesser known and blessedly indoor facility, The Barns, keeps the music coming inside its rustic, far more intimate performance space.

While The Barns primarily hosts smaller pop groups, folk groups and solo performers these days for the most part—for us a sad though often spirited reflection of our less classically-oriented era—the venue’s long-running “Discovery Series” of recitals, all of which are recorded for later broadcast on public radio keeps classical music alive and well during the fall and winter months.

Better yet, with rare exceptions, the series often hosts wonderful but lesser-known ensembles while also offering welcome glimpses into the wonderful but underappreciated riches of the chamber music repertoire.

Two recent programs at The Barns amply illustrate this observation. In late February, the Atos Trio arrived in Vienna—Virginia, of course—to perform an intriguing recital highlighting 20th century and nearly-20th century chamber music by four very different and distinct composers, three of whom are generally not known for their chamber music and two of whom are hardly remembered at all.

Sergei Rachmaninoff, via Wikipedia.
Sergei Rachmaninoff, via Wikipedia.

In their all-Russian program, thematically entitled “The Light that Shines in the Darkness,” the trio—violinist Annette von Hehn, cellist Stefan Heinemeyer, and pianist Thomas Hoppe—performed chamber works by the well-known composers Sergei Rachmaninoff and Dmitri Shostakovich, but leavened the mix quite creatively, adding works by the far lesser known Russians Anton Arensky and Alexander Weprik (also spelled “Veprik.”)

All four composers share biographical and compositional links to this program’s theme statement, which was derived from an unfinished drama by yet another well-known Russian, novelist Leo Tolstoy. Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich and Weprik all had their lives uprooted, disoriented and in many respects destroyed by the Soviet Union’s Communist dictatorship. Rachmaninoff lost his income, his royalties and his family property when he went into exile; Shostakovich’s constant persecution by the Stalinists is well-known; and Weprik, a Jew, paid for his ethnic background in many ways, including a stint in the Russian gulag in the 1950s, which arguably ruined his health and hastened his death. In light of history as it unfolds in 2014, it’s also worth noting ironically that Weprik, a citizen of the U.S.S.R. for nearly all his life, was actually an ethnic Ukrainian.

Arensky, on the other hand, succumbed early to the ravages of tuberculosis. A student of both Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, he in turn taught, at various times, the young Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and Glière. Even so, his intriguing and deeply Romantic output was largely dismissed by Russia’s musical cognoscenti after his untimely death in 1906. Even today he is largely though unfairly forgotten, at least in the U.S.

Yet the light that still shines through the darkness of these four composers’ often tragic lives is, not unsurprisingly, the distinctive musical output of each.

The Atos Trio opened their program with Rachmaninoff’s early, 1892 “Trio élégiaque in G-minor.” Though composed when Rachmaninoff was not yet 20, this trio nonetheless demonstrates that while this already serious composer and his music seized early on and never let go of a deeply Romantic yet melancholy interpretation of life, he still retained an inner longing for transcendence.

The single-movement trio echoes the sonata form in general, but is actually comprised of several constantly morphing episodes that, with surging inevitability, conclude with what amounts to a funeral march. That said, there are also gloriously uplifting and exciting passages within that allude to the richness of life even when it seems bracketed by tragedy.

Anton Arensky, unattributed. (Via Wikipedia, out of U.S. copyright)
Anton Arensky, unattributed. (Via Wikipedia, out of U.S. copyright)

The trio gave a marvelously passionate, colorful and well synchronized interpretation of the work, setting in some respects, the scene for the remaining larger compositions in the program.

Concluding the program’s first half, the trio launched into a spirited performance of Arensky’s lush, Romantic, yet highly individualistic Trio No. 1 in D-minor, Op. 32. This is a big, ambitious work that, while echoing Tchaikovsky somewhat, also contains unique, folk music elements while looking forward to the early 20th century, the turn of which the composer would not long survive.

The work opens with a big, broad “Allegro moderato,” proceeds to a lively, piano-dominated scherzo, slows markedly into a passionate elegy and concludes with a vigorous, driving, highly dramatic finale. A lovely central waltz, bookended by flashier outer elements makes the scherzo memorable. And the entire work, unlike many sonatas and chamber works, subtly endeavors to weave its movements into an organic whole by recalling passages from earlier movements en route to a final recapitulation in the grand finale.

The Altos Trio clearly is fond of this work, and during their performance here lit into its performance at times like musicians possessed. This was a definitive, decisive reading of this unfairly neglected score, and argues strongly in favor of taking a closer look at the rest of Arensky’s interesting compositional trail.

Alexander Weprik (also Veprik). Image copyright uncertain, various sources including Musica Hebraica.
Alexander Weprik (also Veprik). Image copyright uncertain, various sources including Musica Hebraica.

The second half of the Trio’s program opened with a refreshing, at times nearly humorous performance of Alexander Weprik’s “Three Folkdances,” Op. 13b. They are what they are, the composer’s take on three different dance tunes with snippets here and there sounding very much like they were borrowed from a klezmer band yet artfully “classicized” and not obvious if one is not paying attention.

The trio performed these dances with grace and wit, parting the Russian clouds in this program with a bit of ethnic sunlight before those clouds closed back in again for the program’s concluding work, Shostakovich’s 1944 “Trio No. 2 in E-minor,” Op. 67. Composed as the Second World War surged toward its horrendous close, the trio has its share of Shostakovich’s patented thunder and lightning, but is on most levels less violent and severe than other compositions penned by him around this turbulent time.

Again, the Atos Trio attacked this challenging work with purpose and insight. The first movement “Andante” is particularly difficult for the solo cello, which must periodically execute ghostly high harmonics against fugal and funereal elements provided by the violin and piano.

Dmitri Shostakovich, via Wikipedia.
Dmitri Shostakovich, via Wikipedia.

After the furious, athletic “Allegro con brio” that followed, all three instruments demonstrated a dazzling mastery of somewhat more conventional instrumental techniques before proceeding to darken the atmosphere once again where the piano periodically provides a somber, tolling background for funereal excursions in the strings.

The work concludes with another highly challenging fast movement—or relatively fast, anyway, as it’s marked “Alegretto.” As in the Arensky, elements of the preceding three movements are woven into this sum-of-all-parts finale, much of which is swirls about a klezmer-like motif—perhaps the Trio’s way of offering a hat-tip to the unfortunate Weprik, who along with the other composers on this program populates what Jack London once called “the fellowship of pain.”

In any event, the Trio navigated this tough finale with courage matched by astonishing technical skill, bringing a cautiously triumphal finale to their deeply serious program in one of the best chamber music concerts we’ve recently heard.

The Atos Trio program was followed up on March 7 by yet another distinctive “Discovery Series” installment, this time featuring bass-baritone soloist Ryan McKinny in an entire evening devoted to selections from Franz Schubert’s major art song cycle, “Winterreise” (“Winter Journey”).

One of the composer’s greatest song cycles, “Winterreise,” charts a melancholy picture of a lone wanderer traversing a bleak winter landscape aimlessly in an attempt to break free of a hopeless, lost love—or perhaps at least retain the memories. Somewhat uncharacteristic of Schubert’s usual musical output, these songs, set to a dark series poems by Wilhelm Müller, are sparing in Romantic coloration, matching almost perfectly instead the stark monotone hues one encounters in the depths of winter.

The choice of these songs early in this month seemed almost prescient, in spite of the fact that when the program was scheduled, no one could have imagined the relentless, bone-chilling nastiness of Winter 2014. That said, the depressing, ruthless frigid weather the DC area has been experiencing almost without respite this year somehow made the atmospherics of this song cycle all the more real.

Mr. McKinny, an increasingly well-regarded operatic singer of Wagnerian power, made this selection of Schubert’s songs his own during his 90-minute recital, wisely performed without a break in order to sustain the feeling and the mood.

“Winterreise” is in many ways a musical cousin to Goëthe’s “Sorrows of Young Werther,” the story of a young artist who, having clearly lost the love of his life, decides that suicide is the only logical alternative to living a life of utter hopelessness, dejection and despair. While neither Müller’s nor Schubert’s narrator seems to endorse Werther’s end game, the attitude conveyed by these songs is firmly in that territory.

Mr. McKinny clearly has all the tools he needs to climb the highest peaks of the opera firmament. His deep, authoritative, resonant voice reminded us a bit of Sam Ramey in his prime during this performance, and his acting skills, even in a concert setting, were formidable.

What particularly impressed us in this vocal recital was the astounding clarity and precision of Mr. McKinny’s excellent German diction. An American for whom German was not a primary language in his formative years, Mr. McKinny nonetheless sharpened the effect of each line with crisp, biting, definitive consonants, making even some of Schubert’s more lyrical moments as effective as they might have been if delivered as spoken dialogue by an accomplished German actor. The effect was made all the more telling in the intimate atmospherics that make nearly every program at The Barns like sitting in your living room, enjoying an intimate, personal performance.

Mr. McKinny’s spellbinding performance was made even more effective courtesy of his marvelous accompanist, Kim Pensinger Witman, well known to area classical fans as Wolf Trap Opera’s guiding light for many years. Any pianist who supports a Schubert-singing vocalist has to possess formidable skills of his or her own, as this composer wrote his piano parts as if he were scoring them for full orchestra.

Ms. Witman certainly fit the bill perfectly during this recital. Perhaps even more importantly—given her many years of working with tomorrow’s rising opera stars—she knows how to deploy Schubert’s rolling, surging accompaniments as background rather than foreground, enhancing the effectiveness of a given vocal artist rather than overshadowing it.

There were many highlights in this program. But perhaps the most effective of all the songs of the evening was Mr. McKinny’s presentation of his final, enigmatic song, “The Hurdy-Gurdy Man.”

Müller’s short, stark verses paint a chilling word-picture of a poor, hapless, under clothed and undernourished street entertainer cranking out his limited repertoire of tunes, fingers frozen but still trying to move in the bitter cold in spite of receiving not a single coin for his efforts.

“No one listens to him,/no one notices him” runs the English translation, as our narrator observes him, asking, “Shall I go with you?/Will you accompany my songs?” It’s a depressing moment, summing up, in its own negative way, all that has gone before.

Schubert’s music here is equally spare and frosty. But Mr. McKinny added to the effect by singing this song almost sotto voce in a deliberately thin voice unaided by the usual, rich vibrato that’s a stock in trade of the opera singer. Wan, pale, pathetic, his voice purposely lacked its normal depth, sounding for all intents as would the voice of almost any nonprofessional who might attempt to sing the same lyrics.

But the effect here was a brilliant stroke, creating the impression that the narrator had now given up all resolution, all hope, having reached the point where he no longer had the power to express his emotions having been entirely exhausted not only by them but by winter’s never-ending icy blast.

The verse, the music, the delivery and the sheer drama were a perfect, artistic match, making this sad, deflated finale to the evening more memorable in many ways than an exciting virtuoso flourish, making it hang in your mind long after the final, sad notes had drifted away.

The Brentano Quartet, will appear at the Barns March 28 in Discovery Series season finale. (PR photo credit: Christian Steiner, courtesy Wolf Trap.)

Both the Atos Quartet and Mr. McKinny’s highly personal take on “Winterreise” were definitive and welcome performances that in the end somehow stole at least some of the chill from this genuinely awful winter—a tribute to the power not only of great music but also to the fantastic artists who interpret it.

Two final “Discovery Series” concerts remained on The Barns’ schedule until last week when we were informed that the final concert—a special, multi-instrumental performance of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”—has been canceled due to the indisposition of one of the soloists.

So the next Discovery Series concert of the 2013-2014 season, an all-Beethoven program by the Bretano Quartet next Friday, March 28 (at 8 p.m.), will also be the series’ 2013-2014 season finale. Having recently been featured in the film “A Late Quartet,” this is an ensemble that northern Virginia and DC area Beethoven fans won’t want to miss.

For tickets and information, simply click this link, visit the Barns’ ticket office (schedule listed here), or call at 877.965.3872 from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. EDT.


For both the Atos Trio and Ryan McKinny’s “Winterreise”: **** (4 out of 4 stars)

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  • Thomas Hoppe

    Thank you for that detailed article! Would you correct the header into ATOS Trio, not ATOS Quartet? And, whom may I write to in order to obtain written permission to use some lines of this article in our website and such? Warm best,
    Thomas Hoppe, pianist
    ATOS Trio