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Felicities and Gloomy Songs from Emmanuel


Emmanuel Music, under new artistic director Ryan Turner, began its chamber music series on Sunday afternoon, October 31, at Emmanuel Church. In a nod to the late Craig Smith, founder of Emmanuel Music, the concert featured early works by Beethoven surrounding the somber Gellert songs, when the composer was experiencing deafness. It was a attractive program performed by superb musicians to a capacity house in this, the fortieth anniversary of this group.

First up, a rarity, was the String Trio No 1 in E-flat Major, op. 3, played by violinist Rose Drucker, violist Jonina Mazzeo, and cellist Michael Curry. New to this reviewer, this six-movement work occupied the entire first half of the concert. The opening Allegro con brio is too long, I felt, and for some reason the group experienced the occasional intonation problems. Haydn is considered to have invented the string trio, and Beethoven perhaps was trying to outdo the earlier master. Still, there were several felicities throughout, like drones, pizzicato passages, and a jolly finale.

After intermission, in which we were served cider and donuts because of Hallowe’en, came the Gellert songs, op. 48, sung by tenor Zachary Wilder (a Lorraine Hunt Lieberson fellow) and pianist Judith Gordon. The six poems by Christian Fürchtegott Gellert appealed to Beethoven’s sense of gloom. By 1802 he was experiencing deafness — a form of tinnitus that also Schumann had. (No more excruciating condition can befall a composer.) The short “Gottes Macht und Vorsehung” is particularly effective. Wilder sang particularly well “Die Ehre Gottes aus der Nature,” a song that, unlike the other somber ones, is a tribute to the glories of nature. One moment in “Vom Tode” was emotionally wrenching, when the tenor sings “Think, o man, upon Death! Do not delay; this one thing is necessity”

Sunniness returned in the last piece, the Piano Trio No. 1 in E-flat Major, op. 1 (actually not his first published work.) It was first performed in 1793 in the dedicatee’s house in Vienna. From the opening Allegro you knew that you in a master’s hands, played well by Drucker, Curry, and Gordon. Such energy prevailed! The Adagio cantabile second movement begins with a piano solo from the ever-attentive Gordon. This movement is rife with exquisite melodies and the ending is exceptional. A distinctive theme, with plenty of surprises, typifies the finale. Gordon has a way with sforzandi (suddenly or strongly accented notes), and Beethoven punctuates his music with a lot of them. All the players were clearly enjoying themselves. This spirit was infectious.

Emmanuel Music continues the Beethoven chamber series on Sunday, November 14 and twice next year in February. All are at 4:00 p.m.

Larry Phillips studied music at Harvard, the Montreal Conservatory, and at New England Conservatory. In 1974 he was a prizewinner at the International Harpsichord Competition in Bruges, Belgium.

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