The classical music series at Eddie’s Attic kicked back into gear on Sunday with violist Jennifer Stumm and pianist Elizabeth Pridgen, one month after the duo recorded a new CD for the British Orchid Classics label, to be released next April. “We recorded August 8-10 at Potton Hall, a beautiful purpose-built barn in the Suffolk countryside, with an amazing producer, Jeremy Hayes, who was a former BBC honcho,” Stumm said in an email.
The recording features Hector Berlioz’ “Harold in Italy” as transcribed for viola and piano by Franz Liszt, with each of that work’s four movements paired with a song by Liszt that Stumm said “expounded well on the Berlioz. The idea is for the album to be a narrative, start to finish, and thus the movements of Harold won’t be contiguous.”
The album served as the premise for Sunday’s concert, and except for the absence of Liszt’s “Nuages gris,” what Stumm and Pridgen performed at Eddie’s was the same music, in the same order, as on the disc.
While “Harold in Italy” is best known in its original version for viola and large orchestra, Stumm cited advantages of the transcription for viola and piano. “The greatest pleasure for the violist in this version is freedom of sound, not having to worry about being heard over a massive orchestra,” she said. “It was also a delight to bring out all of the genius [of] detail in the piece and Berlioz’ sense of play — something that with just two performers was more immediately possible than with 110.”
The remaining three companion pieces by Liszt were “Romance oubliee” (1880), “Oh! quand je dors” (the first version from 1842) and “Schlaflos! Fragen und Antwort” (1883, a nocturne after a poem by Toni Raab).
Stumm is a native Atlantan who attended Westminster High School and played in the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra, then studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She is a world-traveling soloist and the international chair of viola at the Royal College of Music in London. She comes back home to visit family several times a year and played a concert at Eddie’s Attic while in town last September.
Pridgen, also an Atlanta native, earned her music degrees at the Peabody Conservatory and Juilliard School and is now a distinguished artist and piano chair for the McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University in Macon. She has become especially noted as a collaborative pianist in performances on both sides of the Atlantic and has a notable presence on the Atlanta scene.
The two work well together, and with this music. As she did early in the summer with a Brahms sonata, Stumm drew from her instrument a luscious contralto singing tone that suited the romantic passions and sentiments of the music, but with the ability to give it transparency where the music asked for it. Pridgen also demonstrated her ability to shape lyrical singing phrases while commanding the considerable “big-handed” demands of Liszt. And she did it while battling a major obstacle.
If there was a downside to the recital it was the piano itself, a rented, very short-scale Essex. Designed by Steinway but manufactured in China by the Pearl River Piano Group, the Essex is a “budget” instrument intended for entry-level musicians, not professional performances. From the very first notes, the piano began slouching its way out of tune. It was no match for Pridgen’s prodigious playing nor the physical demands of Liszt’s piano parts. In the penultimate piece, such was the force of the hammerstrokes that some of the strings let out a couple of wirey metallic screams for mercy.
The primary problem was not the shortness of scale, something necessitated by the small stage at Eddie’s Attic. There are short-scaled pianos that have proven bright in tone but otherwise satisfactory in recitals where limited space is a factor. This was simply not one of them. Eddie’s was not involved at all in the instrument rental, so no fault there. The artists had trusted a well-known piano firm to supply a suitable instrument and, as they themselves recognized, wound up on the receiving end of an expensive mistake.
Nevertheless, the sizable audience, which filled the tables and barstools, seemed to love it. Ovations included a few shouts of “awesome!” for the piano-centric final movement of “Harold in Italy.”
Those who were there and had not previously heard Pridgen perform should make a special effort to hear her again at the helm of a fine instrument, as was the case at last season’s mid-April concert by the Georgian Chamber Players at Trinity Presbyterian Church. That’s only one of several traditional concert spots in the city with an excellent, well-maintained in-house piano, the kind of context in which Stumm and Pridgen could play this Berlioz-Liszt repertoire again and really make it blossom into fuller flower. Let’s hope they will.