Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Music review: Violinist struggles in Rinker recital

Violinist Christina Castelli.

By Greg Stepanich

WEST PALM BEACH -- Normally, an encore provides a chance for performers and listeners to relax and enjoy the good feelings that have been generated on both sides as the concert stretches on a bit past closing time.

For her encore Monday night at the Rinker Playhouse, the American violinist Christina Castelli chose Estrellita, the charming little salon song by the Mexican composer Manuel Ponce. And while this tender tune did have the effect of a sweet ending to a demanding night, it also was a reminder of the playing problems with which Castelli struggled during her recital.

Chief among them was inaccurate intonation, which affected much of the concert. Estrellita is a melody that starts low and leaps up in a high-flying fashion, and Castelli's register shifts were just wide enough of the mark to throw the whole piece off kilter, at least for me. That said, Castelli also demonstrated important strengths as a musician, and her recital was, on the whole, enjoyable, and a pleasant way to wrap up the Kravis Center's Young Artists Series.

The first work on Monday's recital, the Sonata No.1 (in G, Op. 78) of Brahms, was in many ways well-presented, most notably in the slow movement, which had a noble purity of sound that was quite attractive. But her intonation was off in the exposed closing bars, as it was in parts of the two outer movements.

More importantly, this was a very stiff Brahms, with little of the warmth and pregnant possibility inherent in the opening melody, which should have a inner pulse that drives it along; this is big, sweeping Brahms, and Castelli needed to give it a lot more arm. She was at her best when the music matched her narrow, intense tone, and she could show an impressive ability to play crucial passages with total focus, an attribute that sharpens a listener's attention.

She followed the Brahms with one of the six solo sonatas (No. 5 in G, Op. 27, No. 5) of the great Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaye, prefacing the performance with informative remarks about some of the sound effects included by the composer. These are also virtuoso showboat works, and Castelli was able to handle the monstrous difficulties capably.

Still, while the Fifth Sonata might not be as tempestuous as the Second Sonata, it is nevertheless flamboyant, and Castelli's performance came across as very hard work without much of the fun of something like the sonata's Danse rustique, with its five-beat kookiness and extravagant triple-stop texture. Castelli can play the notes of the Fifth Sonata, but she now needs to add its bravura, which was missing Monday night.

The second half was better in most respects than the first, beginning with the Suite Populaire Espagnole of Manuel de Falla. With sensitive backing from her pianist Grant Moffett, Castelli gave a decent account of these evocative miniatures, clearly introducing each of the different pieces with taste and care, if not much mood.

I noted intonation problems in Nana and Polo, but she had warmed up by the closing Jota and was playing with an exciting tension that ended the suite in appropriately dramatic fashion.

Castelli ended the recital with one of Sergei Prokofiev's best pieces, his Second Sonata (in D, Op. 94a), originally for flute but now far better known in its violin version. Prokofiev's aesthetic makes a good fit for the kind of player Castelli is, and this was her best performance Monday.

The second and third movements were particularly fine for both Castelli and Moffett, and overall this reading had a cool, unsentimental feel that advocated well for Prokofiev. Yet she could have done more with the opening melody, one of Prokofiev's best tunes, which cries out for a bit of red blood and rubato, but didn't get that here.

Christina Castelli has already had an impressive career, soloing with some of the best orchestras in the world, doing recitals at Carnegie Hall and Chicago's Ravinia Festival, and landing major chamber music gigs. She must have a formidable intellect, holding a bachelor's in chemistry from Harvard as well as a master's from Juilliard, and she even wrote the program notes for her recital: They were lucid, well-informed and gracefully written.

I think she was having a tough night Monday, which would explain her repeated intonation difficulties as well as her need to retune before each of the pieces. It would be good to hear her again, and perhaps this time encounter the side of her artistic personality that would allow the music she plays to breathe, not just exist.

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