in: Reviews

January 10, 2012

Emmanuel Music’s Early Beethoven Banquet

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Emmanuel Music continued the second year of their Beethoven chamber series at Emmanuel Church on Sunday, January 8 with another program exploring Beethoven’s creative output in his earliest years. For quite a few years, Emmanuel Music has explored the chamber music of several composers in comprehensive fashion, playing little-known and under-appreciated works alongside art songs and more popular warhorses. The programs have been a feast for the ears, offering a chance to hear fine performances, to sample the remarkable breadth and depth of the group’s roster of regular musicians, and to get a foretaste of the later masterworks to come.

The first course of the afternoon was the 1792 set of 14 Variations on an Original Theme in E-flat, given the deceptively high opus number 44 because it was published much later than it was written. This work anticipates the finale of the “Eroica” Symphony, in that the theme is presented in skeletal harmonic form and elaborated into a tune. The tune would sometimes be split up and exchanged rapid-fire between each of the players, and a frenetic buildup led to a pregnant pause before the final coda. It was a fine performance; pianist Brett Hodgdon was a model collaborator, supporting his partners when the music called for it, and taking the lead when the piano was in the spotlight. Violinist Heather Braun and cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer showed the kind of easy give-and-take that comes from playing alongside each other in countless Bach cantatas, sharing those split Beethovenian lines seamlessly, exploiting Beethoven’s dramatic dynamic contrasts, and milking the pregnant pauses for all they were worth.

The second course was the best known work of the program, the Sonata No. 2 in G for Piano and Cello, op. 5. Hodgdon and Popper-Keizer returned to give a rousing account of the sonata, with Popper-Keizer offering his customary warm, burnished tone, using judicious variation in his vibrato, and giving full voice to the flowing torrents of passion unleashed in the massive Sonata-Allegro at the heart of the piece. Hodgdon matched him step for step, sparkling and supporting at the same time. The massive first movement received appreciative applause from the audience before the duo launched into the spirited Rondo Finale.

After an intermission with a selection of baked treats in the narthex, artistic director Ryan Turner called the proceedings back to order and introduced a set of five early songs in which Hodgdon partnered with soprano Kendra Colton. The songs often felt less like genuine Lieder and more like stabs at concert arias; “Man strebt die Flamme zu verhehlen” could have been interpolated for a Mozart Singspiel. “Lebensglück” (Life’s Bliss) also had an aria-like sound, complete with cadenza leading to another Beethovenian pregnant pause, then an ornamented repeat of the first stanza. The set also included two unusual, French-language settings, one of Rousseau (“Que le temps me dure”) and one a Romance (“Plaisir d’aimer, besoin d’une âme tender”). The final song, which set two poems of Gottfried August Bürger, began with “Seufzer eines Ungeliebten” (Sighs of the Unloved), and segued directly into the second poem, “Gegenliebe” (Returned Love), whose tune will sound awfully familiar to anybody who has ever sung or heard the “Choral Fantasy” — making it an ancestor to the Ode to Joy. Colton dispatched the songs with aplomb, her pure ringing tone matched to sterling diction and alert musicality, and Hodgdon was in his element, offering a range of colors and shadings without ever overshadowing his singer.

The final course of the evening was the latest of the early Beethoven chamber works of the afternoon, the String Trio No. 5 in C, op. 9, no. 3. Violinist Heather Braun and cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer were joined by violist Mary Ruth Ray for this four-movement work. Here was some juicy chamber music making; in one moment of the opening Sonata-Allegro, the three strings alternated rapidly between soloing and accompanying parts, and each member of the group shone for their solos, then backed off for thoughtful, tasteful accompaniment figures in support of their partners, and near the end of the movement, they again made use of Beethoven’s pregnant pauses to maximum effect. Their tuning was spot on, making for an exquisitely crunchy suspension right before the end of the major-key slow movement. The Scherzo offered more rapid fire motif exchange between the players, and the calmer Trio section is jolted abruptly back to Scherzo with another Beethovenian outburst. Watching these Emmanuel veterans respond to each other, feed off each other, and sound gorgeously together makes one eager to hear the Emmanuel staff explore Beethoven’s string quartet repertoire.

All in all, this was a sumptuous banquet, with a small number of players — three string players, a pianist, and a soprano. All of them are regulars in the Sunday church services, and none of them repeated in the previous two chamber concerts of the season; they are shuffled in a variety of striking combinations. The audience filled Emmanuel Church’s parish hall to overflowing. And there are further feasts to come; the fourth and final concert of the 2011-2012 Beethoven season will be heard on January 22, and tenor Frank Kelley and pianist Russell Sherman offer two great song cycles (Die schöne Müllerin and Dichterliebe) in February.

James C.S. Liu is a physician by day and a baritone and music enthusiast by night.  He lives with his wife and daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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