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.