in: Reviews

June 20, 2011

Kroll Dynamic in Questionable Program

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The Nahant Historical Society presented its final concert of the season at the Ellingwood Chapel on Saturday night, June 18. This intimate stone hall, with white stucco and stained-glass windows, sits atop a small hill rising from Nahant Bay. It is an ideal setting for chamber music. Why, then, did the program comprise Mozart’s “Jupiter” and Beethoven’s “Pastorale” symphonies?

Confronting these seminal works outside of their natural habitat, so to speak, is unsettling. Rather than hearing a full orchestra, the listener is faced with transcriptions by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778 –1837) for fortepiano, violin, cello and flute. The most interesting and difficult parts were often transcribed for the pianist, which is no coincidence because Hummel himself was a virtuoso pianist. But on many occasions, the piano is assigned parts that naturally occur elsewhere, shifting the flute or first violin into lower registers. Often this results in a bottom-heavy texture, with the piano and cello dominating the sound. The mixture of winds and strings is not ideal; although the flute adds much-needed color, it was more often than not lost in the vibrant hall.

The Ellingwood Chapel is beautiful, both inside and out. It features a large vertical space with sound that reverberates nicely, but the balance of the quartet did not take advantage of the space; its bottom-heavy texture overwhelmed more of the delicate moments. For example, the second theme in the first movement of the Mozart needs to be a light and airy affair in order to contrast with the furious material surrounding it.

Playing a copy of a 1775 Stein “Viennese” piano, Mark Kroll was the most dynamic performer of the evening. He coaxed a wide range of sounds from the instrument, from the necessary birdcalls in the Beethoven to the bombastic runs in the fourth movement of the Mozart. Indeed, his performance overshadowed his counterparts at every turn.

The remaining instruments were relatively subservient throughout the evening. The violinist, Carol Lieberman, never seemed to rise above her role as an accompanying instrument. The flautist, Alan Weiss, tended to float above the texture, and in the first movement of the Mozart seemed to disappear for long stretches. On the other hand, the cellist, Jan Pfeiffer, embraced her accompanying role; her energetic playing helped propel the rhythm. In fact, one audience member was heard remarking, “Look at how much fun she’s having.” However, her enthusiastic playing sometimes overwhelmed the texture.

Hearing these works in a chamber-music setting certainly opens up new sounds and insights. Last year, Mark Kroll presented Hummel’s transcription of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony and one hopes that, with a more sensitive reading, he continues the tradition.

Alex Ludwig holds a Ph. D. in Musicology from Brandeis University and is the Secretary of the Haydn Society of North America.

3 Comments

  1. It is difficult to know what to make of Alex Ludwig’s curious review. Frankly, he often contradicts himself, and many of his comments make little if any sense or are just plain wrong. For example, Ludwig rightly commends the Ellingwood Chapel for being “an ideal setting for chamber music,” but then asks: “Why, then did the program comprise Mozart’s “Jupiter” and Beethoven’s “Pastorale” symphonies.” The answer is quite simple, Mr. Ludwig: these arrangements of orchestral works are chamber music! Or do you not think an ensemble of four instruments belongs in this genre?
    He also seems to not like such arrangements—or does he? Ludwig complains that “rather than hearing a full orchestra, the listener is faced with transcriptions,” as if these are really a poor substitute for the “real thing.” Yet a few paragraphs later he writes “Hearing these works in a chamber-music setting certainly opens up new sounds and insights.” Indeed they do, and it might have been interesting for readers to know that for the vast majority of music-lovers living before the invention of the radio and recording, such transcriptions were the only way they could hear and enjoy orchestral works. The audience in Nahant certainly appreciated the experience: they gave these four virtuoso performers a well-deserved standing ovation after the concert.

    Comment by e.r.staunt — June 20, 2011 at 7:32 pm

  2. This is a comment by the “subservient” violinist in response to Alex Ludwig’s review of our Hummel Transcription concert in Nahant. Mr. Ludwig correctly states that Hummel was a virtuoso pianist, so it is only fitting that he would transcribe the Mozart and Beethoven symphonies to highlight his own instrument. If the flute and violin came across as “accompanying” instruments, then that is exactly what Hummel intended. Normally one would think that these instruments would have solo roles, but that was not the purpose here. In fact, Hummel transcribed these symphonies to be played in homes, literally as chamber music. From the perspective of the audience, which reacted to the concert with a standing ovation, they understood all the subtleties that were conveyed by the performers of these ingenious transcriptions. Hummel knew what he wanted, and that is what was conveyed.

    Comment by Carol Lieberman — June 21, 2011 at 9:06 am

  3. *In case you hadn’t noticed, audiences in Boston and surroundings stand as a matter of course. The concept of standing for special recognition does not exist here. The audience stand because that is what they do.

    Comment by Philip Johnson — April 28, 2012 at 1:42 pm

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