News Column

The Santa Fe New Mexican Listen Up column

August 9, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 09--Ludwig van Beethoven struck gold with his Septet for Violin, Viola, Cello, Double Bass, Clarinet, Horn, and Bassoon, which he unveiled in Vienna in 1800 and published two years later, in June or July 1802, as his op. 20. Its combination of string and wind instruments offered pleasing, full-textured possibilities for orchestration, yet the ensemble was not so large as to create undue difficulties in assembling the requisite players. Nonetheless, publishers of Beethoven's time rarely missed an opportunity to expand the market for a piece that proved popular, and before the year was up the Septet accordingly appeared in a transcription for string quintet. Beethoven was not particularly enthusiastic about this arrangement, and he published a notice in a Vienna newspaper that stated: "The making of these transcriptions is on the whole a thing against which nowadays (in our prolific age of transcriptions) a composer would merely struggle in vain; but at least he is entitled to demand that the publishers shall mention the fact on the title page, so that his honor as a composer may not be infringed nor the public deceived."

He was right to resist struggling against the inevitable. It quickly became one of his most popular pieces -- his most popular of all, for a while -- and by the time he died in 1827, publisher's catalogs all over Europe boasted editions of it in its original form and in arrangements for a wide variety of instrumental combinations: for 11 winds, for nine winds, for flute quintet, for piano quartet, for piano trio, for guitar duet, and on and on. Beethoven grew to resent its success, feeling that others of his works deserved its popularity more. In 1815, when a British visitor told him about how enthusiastically the piece had been embraced in England, Beethoven responded gruffly: "That's a damned thing. I wish it were burned!" The following year, when the publishing firm of Breitkopf & H rtel issued one of the various settings made for piano four-hands, the company described it as a "particularly beloved, exquisite work -- known as one of the most richly melodic, cheerful, and comprehensible among B's works."

A group of fine musicians assembled at St. Francis Auditorium to perform the Septet, in its original version, on July 28 and 29 in a concert presented by the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival (I heard the latter performance). The work found itself in good hands when it came to melodic richness and general comprehensibility. But cheerful it was not, and that is surely the characteristic that most accounted for its success when it was new and that most justifies its inclusion on programs today. Much of the playing was fine indeed. The second movement (Adagio cantabile) was infused with spaciousness, and the third (Tempo di ?menuetto) caught my interest for being the fastest rendition of that movement I can recall. But everyone was so serious. In its entire 40-plus minutes, I saw exactly one of the seven musicians allow a smile to flicker across her face (thank you, double bassist Kristen Bruya!), and that was on the last page of the finale. Other than that, gazes were trained intently on the music stands, and nobody gave visible evidence of taking the slightest joy in the music that was propped there. I'm not suggesting that instrumentalists go out of their way to accompany their playing with ongoing mime. But if they are having fun, that tends to come across in their bearing; it becomes part of the spirit they are there to communicate to the audience. What's more, when players allow themselves to have fun in their music making and don't suppress their enthusiasm while performing, that gets refracted through their playing. Beethoven's Septet often smiles, or at least it wants to. If an ensemble is comfortable enough to perform the piece, one would hope they would not just play its notes correctly but also serve as vessels for its cheerfulness.

Something similar crossed my mind on the evening of Aug. 1 at St. Francis Auditorium in another festival offering, when the Johannes String Quartet played Franz Schubert's Quartet in A Minor (D.804), the Rosamunde (so called because its Andante movement includes a tune that also figures in the composer's well-known incidental music for the play Rosamunde). There was some excellent playing, none better than at the spot in the second movement where Schubert, ever given to harmonic wandering, is passing through the realm of F Minor or A-flat Major (depending on how you hear it), and the foursome joined in a bursting crescendo that was executed with organic inevitability. Schubert's Rosamunde Quartet is certainly a less smiling work than Beethoven's Septet, but parts of it do not lack Gem tlichkeit -- a word summoned up often in reference to Viennese character to suggest a mood of warm-hearted welcome, cozy cordiality, and unaffected charm. It inhabits the "Rosamunde" theme in the second movement, the "yodeling" trio of the Menuetto, and the affable opening of the finale. But again, one saw no smiles among the players and heard little cheerfulness in the playing.

Earlier that day, the Johannes String Quartet offered two other quartets, both of them challenging: Henri Dutilleux's Ainsi la nuit (completed in 1976) and Johannes Brahms' Quartet No. 3 in B-flat Major (op. 67, from exactly a century earlier). Brahms published only three string quartets, and they qualify as his toughest chamber works. At least the first two do; the B-flat-Major one breathes somewhat more freely and is overall less forbidding than its predecessors. That said, even the intermezzo movement that usually provides some emotional relief in Brahms' most serious pieces is here a nervous Agitato filled with sonic weirdness; the viola plays in full voice while the other three buzz around it more hoarsely, with mutes on their bridges -- quite unsettling (and finely rendered here). The group did infuse the finale with an appealing measure of wistfulness -- a touch of Gem tlichkeit, if you will -- and overall they provided a fluid reading that conveyed their respect for the piece and the seriousness of approach that seems to define their character as an ensemble. The genre of the string quartet may have played to Brahms' inherently academic streak, and this interpretation seemed "true to Brahms" in respecting that.

More exciting, though, was the ensemble's rendition of Ainsi la nuit. Dutilleux had gradually become a dean of French composers by the time he died this past May at the age of 97, quietly turning out a parsimonious string of glistening masterworks from his studio tucked away on the le Saint-Louis in the middle of Paris. He became most famous for his orchestral works, and Ainsi la nuit remains not widely known, even though it qualifies as the most impressive of his few chamber scores. It is structured in seven movements preceded by an Introduction, with four of the movements connected by short spans ("paranth ses," Dutilleux called them) that summarize what has just been heard and foretell what is about to follow. All that memory and prefiguration adds up to a lot for a listener to keep track of in the course of its 20 minutes, and it may be that the work is most profitably apprehended as an unbroken string of miniatures, each exquisitely crafted, each very pointed in its sonic definition, perhaps reflecting in that regard a French attitude that goes back at least to Debussy. Ainsi la nuit is filled with variety, but in the end it seems a distillation of some cosmic vision. The Johannes String Quartet played it devotedly, paying careful attention to rendering its details with clarity, benefiting at every turn from the extraordinary craftsmanship demonstrated by this much appreciated composer.

Speaking of Schubert again, the pianist Shai Wosner obviously shares a wavelength with him. On July 30, he offered a brilliantly constructed noon recital, another festival presentation, at St. Francis Auditorium, which included Schubert piano works both tiny and gigantic: the minuscule Klavierst ck in E-flat Major (D. 946, No. 1) and the limitless B-flat-Major Sonata (D. 960), both from 1828, the last year of the composer's life. They were separated by Idyll and Abyss: Six Schubert Reminiscences, composed in 2009 by J rg Widmann. The Klavierst ck received an urgent, almost panicked interpretation that reflected Schubert's marking of Allegro assai, and Wosner also invested considerably urgency in the opening movement of the Sonata. Tempos made perfect sense throughout; the concluding Allegro ma non troppo was precisely that -- "fast but not too fast" -- and Wosner's pace seemed appropriately relaxed, not slow but not hurried either. Perhaps the high point of his interpretation was the second movement, a leisurely expanse with beautiful, Brahmsian nobility at its center; as it reached its end, it drifted off into the gentlest inevitability. Holding this piece together is no easy feat. It ran 38 minutes in this performance but never seemed to drag. Widmann's six-section set was an appealing exercise in which fragments of actual Schubert pieces waft through and are recontextualized. One might call his process postmodern, except that the term often implies a degree of irony, and there is no irony here -- only deep-rooted appreciation. Most often the Schubertian bits are fleeting, flickering like little shards and disappearing as soon as they are recognized. Occasionally they consist of larger chunks, sticking around long enough for the ear to settle into them. The effect is haunting overall, although in a few spots Schubert's material is stretched out of shape as if reflected in a fun-house mirror. A challenge with such a piece is that it deflects attention from itself and toward its sources. Listeners who know their Schubert will have found themselves constantly engaged in a game of "Name That Tune," grasping at familiar (or not so familiar) motives or turns of phrase before they receded out of range. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful experience, and it was entirely apropos when one heard snippets from the B-flat-major Sonata that would shortly receive such a loving interpretation in its entirety.

Pianophiles have more keyboard artistry to look forward to in the coming week, as the festival's artist in residence Garrick Ohlsson arrives to appear in Ernest Chausson's moody Concert for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet (assisting violinist William Preucil and the Orion String Quartet on Sunday, Aug. 11, at 6 p.m., at the Lensic Performing Arts Center) and then appears in a solo recital (on Thursday, Aug. 15, at noon, at St. Francis Auditorium). In the latter, he'll offer pieces by Prokofiev and Charles Tomlinson Griffes, the premiere of a work completed in 2010 by Michael Hersch, and several compositions by Chopin, including the much-loved Barcarolle. Chopin represents a particular passion for Ohlsson, who has recorded his complete works, an endeavor currently available on 16 CDs on the Hyperion label. But keyboard aficionados also have another fine player to look forward to this week: Anne-Marie McDermott, a perennial visitor to the festival, who launches an exploration of all five of Mozart's late piano trios, for which she is joined by her long-time chamber ?colleagues Ida Kavafian (violin) and Peter Wiley (cello). The first of these evenings takes place at the Lensic at 6 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 12, and ensuing concerts are scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 13 (at noon, at St. Francis Auditorium); Wednesday, Aug. 14 (at 6 p.m. at the Lensic); and Thursday, Aug. 15 (at 6 p.m. ?at the Lensic); before concluding next week in the festival's final concert, on ?Aug. 19 (also at the Lensic).

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(c)2013 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)

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