in: Reviews

January 23, 2012

Emmanuel Music Delivers


For the fourth and last of this year’s concerts dedicated to Beethoven’s chamber music, Emmanuel Music presented some quite rarely heard works, all of which deserved a hearing. Four string players, two horn players, a baritone and a pianist took turns entertaining the full hall, and brought this series to an unusually delightful end.

The concert opened with the very rarely heard Piano Quartet No. 2, WoO 36 featuring Heidi Braun-Hill, violin; Jonina Mazzeo, viola; Michael Curry, cello; and Sergey Schepkin, piano,who played with distinction in all but the program’s last piece. Full of melodic inventiveness, this piece (and the two other early piano quartets) harbingers of musical maturity still years off for Beethoven. As Lewis Lockwood puts it in “The Music and Life of Beethoven,” “They stand up not despite their direct indebtedness to Mozart — above all certain Mozart violin sonatas — but precisely because of it. Though far below Mozart in level of imagination and control, they possess the voice of a beginner of genius who is steeping himself in Mozart’s ways and is trying to imitate them.” The three quartets for piano, violin, viola, and cello, WoO 36 (1785) are often seen as solo piano sonatas or piano and violin duets with accompanying lower voices. This performance did little to dispel that “misconception.” The viola and cello, try though they might, were hard to hear. The piano and violin caught the spirit of this piece; although it is not a piece one might remember, it is nice to have heard it.

Next came seven songs composed throughought Beethoven’s life, sung by the charming tenor Jason McStoots. Mr. McStoots and Mr. Schepkin were a great team, and brought each of the songs to life with uncanny perfection. This was  a terrific set of performances, and none of the pieces was familiar (each had WoO numbers from between 12 to 125). I would love to hear them again. Mr. McStoots sang with beautiful diction and drama. His delivery of the Anonymous “Elegy on the Death of a Poodle,” written in Beethoven’s teens, was perfect:

You were as free of all deceits and faults
As your curly, silky hair was black;
I knew many people whose souls
Were as black as your outside was….

You lived a short time but lived not in vain;
Alas! seldom can a person say that of himself.

Love, sadness, and death pervade these seven songs. In “Soliloquy” (Johann Wilhelm Ludwig Gleim, translated by Pamela Dellal) Mr. McStoots sang of Doris, “the tyrannical queen of my desires.” One could hear a snippet from the last movement of the first Piano Concerto in this song. Another memorable song given a lovely performance was “New love, New life” WoO 127,  by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (translated by Emily Ezust):

If I rush to escape her,
to take heart and flee her,
I am led back in a moment,
alas, back to her… the dear, mischievous maiden holds me fast against my will.

These songs were revelations; to hear them performed with the charm and humor of Mr. Schepkin and Mr. McStoots was a treat.

The dramatic, seldom heard Violin Sonata in A minor, Op. 23 was originally written and published along with the far sunnier, more lyrical Op. 24, the so-called “Spring Sonata.” Ms. Braun-Hill and Mr. Schepkin, an exceptionally fine Beethoven pianist, gave an excellent performance. Finally, another oddity, the Sextet in E flat for two horns and string quartet, Op. 81b, (my companion and I could not think of a performance in this area in the past four decades) was given a rousing performance. The performance I heard a day before on YouTube did not do this piece justice.  Hearing two horns play live antiphonally and in thirds and sixths live was great fun, and the passages with cello (Michael Curry) and horn  were beautiful.  The very good horn players, Whitacre Hill and Eli Epstein seem to have great fun. The second violinist, Randy Hiller, distinguished himself in this one piece he got to play.

Emmanuel Music has offered Boston concertgoers a real treat with this installment of Beethoven’s lesser known (or unknown) works. As if the music they present weren’t lovely enough, pastries, coffee, and tea were served at intermission. On a frigid January afternoon, the warmth of Emmanuel Music was most welcome.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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