in: Reviews

February 15, 2011

Focus on Beethoven’s Early Years in Vienna

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The first of two concerts in Emmanuel Music’s Sunday afternoon Winter Beethoven Chamber series, on February 13 in the Parish Hall at Emmanuel Church, was devoted to songs and chamber works from Beethoven’s first years in Vienna. Having arrived there at the end of 1792, Beethoven set himself the task of mastering all the then-current musical genres.

The three string trios of Op. 9, composed in 1797-1798, already demonstrate a command of ensemble writing for strings that was to come to full fruition in the Op. 18 quartets, completed just two years later. Violinist Danielle Maddon, violist Mark Berger, and cellist David Russell, depicted with panache the many moods — solemn and quixotic, lyrical and fiery —traversed in the four movements of the Trio in G major, Op. 9, No. 1. It was a lively conversation among three equally accomplished players.

The second part of the program was devoted to songs in German and Italian. With his eye on entering the prestigious world of opera, Beethoven composed several settings in 1809 of texts by the longtime Vienna court opera librettist Pietro Metastasio. In Oh care selve, a lover contrasts the freedom of the sylvan environment with the deceit and artificiality of love at Court. The tenor soloist, Matthew Anderson, brought a warmly resonant timbre and artful phrasing to this short arietta. The German song Adelaide was composed in 1795-1796 to a rather sentimental text by Friedrich von Matthisson in classical “Sapphic” form. Beethoven set the four stanzas, each of which ends with a pleading cry to the beloved, as a through-composed mini-drama ending in an “Allegro molto” march by the unsuccessful lover toward death and transfiguration.  Here Anderson sang with beautiful tone and lyric sensitivity, although sometimes at the expense of clear German diction. He seemed more at home, and his diction more incisive, in his lively and well-paced rendition of the humorous (and slight risqué) narrative Der Kuss. Beethoven composed the comic arietta in an accessible, popular style in 1798 while working on more weighty projects and resurrected it only in 1825 for publication as Op. 128.

The next two songs on the program were both probably composed in 1795 and published together in 1803 without opus number. Ich liebe dich is a straightforward yet affecting setting of a text by the early romantic poet Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Herrosee that could almost have been composed by Schubert. In La Partenza, to a canzonetta text by Metastasio, Beethoven introduces Mozartean chromatic touches in an otherwise simple melody. Mezzo-soprano Krista River delivered both songs with sweetness of tone and a touch of whimsy.

River was also the soloist for the first two of Four Ariettas and a Duet, Op. 82, composed in 1809 (or possibly earlier), part of Beethoven’s ongoing essays in Italian operatic forms. Dimmi, ben mio, che m’ami, set to an anonymous text, and T’intendo, si, mio cor (Metastasio) depict the pangs of love, displaying the full expressive range of River’s singing. In L’amante impaziente, the text is sung first by the mezzo-soprano, then by the tenor, each awaiting the appearance of the other with the breathless excitement of a Cherubino. The fourth arietta brought the two singers together with a stanza for each and a final duet.

Adroit and stylish accompaniment by pianist Sergey Schepkin provided spirited support for all of these songs. Schepkin was joined by violinist Danielle Maddon and cellist David Russell for the Piano Trio in c minor, Op. 1, No. 3. Published in 1795 and the first of Beethoven’s works to be honored by him with an opus number, the trios were an immediate success, in spite of Haydn’s concerns about the fierceness of its mood. C minor, as Maynard Solomon points out, was always a dramatic key for Beethoven, from the pathétique tone of his early works to the heroic mood of the Fifth Symphony and the Coriolanus Overture. The grand design and virtuosity of the c-minor Trio were exploited to the full by the three players. Among the highlights were brilliant playing by Schepkin in the Prestissimo Finale, masterful rendering by the ensemble of the quirky accents in the Menuetto, and beautiful duet interchange between violin and cello in the second movement minore variation.

Emmanuel Music is to be commended for bringing us Beethoven’s earlier, and often lesser known, chamber works in an intimate and congenial setting, and we are grateful that Ryan Turner, now in his second year as Artistic Director, is carrying on the tradition established by founder Craig Smith. Part of a multi-year survey of vocal and chamber works of Beethoven, the Winter Beethoven Chamber Series concludes Sunday, February 27, with Piano Trio no. 4, the Quintet for Piano and Winds in E flat, and the Septet in E flat for winds and strings.

Virginia Newes lives in Cambridge. She was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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