Return of the Lipinski Stradivarius
Frank Almond stars in concert featuring the famous violin that was stolen last year.
Tuesday evening, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster, Frank Almond, told his Frankly Music audience that it was “moving to attend at least one 300th birthday party in my life”; he was referring, of course, to the now-famous Lipiński Stradivarius violin (named after its third owner, Karol Lipiński, and destined to become an answer on “Jeopardy”). As everyone who follows classical music knows by now, Mr. Almond was rather violently separated from his violin one year ago by two nincompoop criminals. Happily, he was reunited with the instrument shortly thereafter due to the rapid response and tremendous detective work of the Milwaukee Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Several officers from the MPD and the FBI were on hand at Wisconsin Lutheran College’s Center for Arts and Performances to be publicly thanked and treated to a fabulous demonstration of what they’d recovered. A packed house was on hand at Schwan Hall to rejoice in the fact that the “Lipiński” is where it belongs—back in the hands of a great violinist. There was also cake.
Frank Almond is a very intelligent musician. His spoken program notes, which casually sketch in the background of the works he and his colleagues are about to play, are largely bon mots and anecdotes. However, Almond’s real intelligence shines in the thoughtful choices he makes in performance.
Opening the program was Giuseppe Tartini’s Sonata Prima in D, Opus 2/1 B. D13. Tartini was the first owner of this glorious Stradivarius violin, and during his lifetime wrote a mountain of violin music. It was fitting to celebrate the violin’s 300th birthday by going back to a work of Tartini (who was 23 when the Lipiński was crafted) scored for violin and continuo. It’s a versatile piece that could be performed as a work for solo violin, a duo for violin and cello or harpsichord, or as a trio. For this reading, Almond, cellist Robert deMaine, and pianist William Wolfram gave a more full-throated version, opting for the convenience of cello and piano (not harpsichord). Baroque-practice purists might have shuddered, but I thought the rich sounds and full vibrato of Almond and deMaine stood up beautifully to the piano, and Wolfram kept things light and clear. In the first movement, marked andante cantabile, Almond laid out the theme, and on the repeat of the phrase deMaine followed with a stylishly ornamented echo. The contemplative third movement, marked affettuoso, was indeed affecting as a tender duet for violin and cello and showed off a sensitive rapport between Almond and deMaine. The last movement, allegro assai, highlighted just what a wonderful artist deMaine is. His clear sound, immaculate intonation, and tremendous musicianship were riveting.
After intermission, Almond, Wolfram, and deMaine were joined by violist Mara Gearman for Robert Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 47. Messrs. Almond and Wolfram are a formidable team whose history goes back years, and their playing is always superb. What stood out in this concert was the galvanizing effect of Robert deMaine’s magnificent playing. Every phrase had a purpose, and while there were no gratuitous musical gestures to draw the ear away from the overall architecture of the work, it was abundantly clear that deMaine possesses show-stealing skills. The start of the second movement was witchcraft. Suddenly and perfectly the piano and cello flew into the scherzo, molto vivace leaving us breathless for the achingly beautiful cello solo in the andante cantabile. Not to be outdone, the viola playing of Gearman grabbed the fugue of the finale, vivace by the throat and pushed her colleagues to a spectacular conclusion.
The Lipiński Strad is a beautiful instrument, but without a great player like Frank Almond to play it, it is simply a really nicely made wooden box.
Happy 300th birthday, Lipiński. Many happy returns.