IN: Reviews

Beethoven and Harbison With “Divine Power”


A capacity crowd filled the Parish Hall at Emmanuel Church in the Back Bay Sunday for the inaugural concert of the third season of Emmanuel Music’s traversal of the complete chamber music of Ludwig van Beethoven. The first two seasons focused mostly on early Beethoven; with this season Emmanuel makes the transition to the middle-period masterworks, adding  modern counterpoints from John Harbison in each concert in the series.

Artistic Director Ryan Turner discussed why Emmanuel programmed the Boston premieres of chamber and vocal works of Emmanuel’s éminence grise Harbison alongside the works of Beethoven by noting that this helps prepare for Emmanuel Music’s upcoming Boston premiere of Harbison’s opera, The Great Gatsby. He also observed that the two composers wrote music that managed to sum up an entire compositional era but found a distinctive voice within that era — Beethoven taking the classical style of Haydn and Mozart into novel and ambitious directions, Harbison mingling Bach’s counterpoint, Stravinsky’s driving rhythms, Schoenberg’s sense of order, and elements of jazz and pop music into his “Harbisonian” style. And they both shared a profound willingness to be misunderstood,  he concluded.

Then, pianist Sergey Schepkin, violinist Heidi Braun-Hill, and cellist Raphael Popper-Keizer took the stage for the Piano Trio in D, op. 70, No. 1. Nicknamed the “Ghost” Trio on the strength of the spooky, otherworldly sound of the central slow movement, it is one of Beethoven’s most popular chamber works, and it received a rousing performance. The work began with explosive homophonic descending scale-and-rising-octaves, then Braun-Hill and Popper-Keizer darted in and out of canon and unison with each other while Schepkin tied things together. He may have come on a bit too strong in the development section: in segments where the pianist should discreetly double a string part, he played too loud and overwhelmed his partner. However, he lent an imaginative range of colors and shadings to Beethoven’s piano writing, offering limpid burbling, impressive thundering, and expressively contrasting shades of staccato, and spent much of the evening as the ideal chamber-music partner. Braun-Hill and Popper-Keizer had center stage for the opening of the slow movement, inspired by sketches for an (unrealized) operatic adaptation of Macbeth. They played hauntingly, even matching transitions from straight tone to rich vibrato. Schepkin’s playing showed remarkable delicacy; one piano figure which rises out of the bass register, dominates the strings in most recordings I’ve heard, but here Schepkin pulled off a beautifully modulated decrescendo as he ascended the scale, disappearing under the string chords. He took a low rumbling trill in the piano part near the end of the exposition to the slow movement and let it grow into something obsessive, perhaps the migraine-like throbbing of the guilt carried by Hamlet’s ghost. The finale returned to bubbly sunniness, with the string players exchanging deftly articulated descending scales and matching phrases with delight. A pedal point figure darkened the recapitulation and grew in a way recalling the trilling idée fixe of the slow movement, before the strings start finishing each other’s ideas and the group brought the trio to an end with rousing chords.

After a round of applause, Harbison took to the stage to explain the genesis of Vocalism. He drew inspiration from the final eight lines of “Voices,” poem 151 of the Walt Whitman anthology, Leaves of Grass. Harbison added a second segment in front of the poem that was taken from the opening segment of “To Oratists,” also from Leaves of Grass.

Both of Whitman’s poems evoked great orators, but Harbison took a cue from phrases such as “concentration, determination, and the divine power to speak words,” and extended it to capture vocal music’s ability to express the inexpressible, “to bring forth what lies slumbering forever ready in all words.” Heady stuff indeed, and inspiration not for an art song but rather a self-styled “grand aria for soprano and piano.” Harbison set Whitman’s flowery poetry in a declamatory style, with a vocal line that almost has the quality of a pop tune, if it weren’t for all the jagged leaps, cross rhythms, and the complexity of meter used to recreate the cadence of spoken English. Soprano Susan Consoli rose to Harbison’s every challenge with aplomb, scaling the heights, but also whispering other texts in a lovely pianissimo with no loss of core or tone. The piano part was even more challenging, though it reminded me not of Beethoven, but another rhythmically driven pianistic enfant terrible; it brought to mind Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata #7, what with the jazzy, rhythmic propulsion of the first half, which recalled the Prokofiev finale and the lyrical second half with occasional rhythmic stumbles, which recalled the Prokofiev slow movement. A soloist of Schepkin’s caliber was more than equal to this challenge.

The second half of the program had two Beethoven works from around 1801 and 1802. The Sonata No. 8 in G for Piano and Violin, op. 30, No. 3 is another three-movement work, and the bouncy first movement featured seamless motif exchange between violinist Braun-Hill and pianist Schepkin. Balances were better, with Schepkin ably applying a range of colors to Beethoven’s figurations without drowning out his partner. Braun-Hill negotiated Beethoven’s unforgiving, demanding first-violin writing with occasional intonation slips at the top of the register, but this did not spoil her customary elegance and sensitive phrasing. In the slow movement, every phrase is played once by one player while the other offers elaborate accompaniment, then the phrase is repeated with the players’ roles switched. Braun-Hill’s and Schepkin’s partnership got better as the exchanges grew tighter and tighter until each was completing the other’s thought. They rollicked through the finale with charm to spare, with Schepkin finding a folksy bagpipe-like drone that I haven’t heard before. The two relished Beethoven’s deceptive cadences and unexpected switches of momentum, and one particularly unexpected modulation after a dramatic pause in the coda drew amused giggling from the crowd.

The final work of the evening was the String Quintet in C, op. 29, which featured Braun-Hill and Popper-Keizer, joined by violinist Rose Drucker and two relative newcomers to Emmanuel, violists Sarah Darling and Karina Fox. I hold the Quintet along with the Piano Trio op. 70, No. 2 among the greatest Beethoven masterworks that most listeners haven’t even heard of, much less heard. More’s the pity, especially when the work gets performances like this. Perhaps it has a relaxed, expansive, almost Schubertian feel because Beethoven exploits the numerous combinations of two versus three instruments, or a full string quartet playing while one extra player offers commentary from a musical peanut gallery. In repeating similar motifs between different instrumental combinations, Beethoven hit upon developmental procedures that would pay dividends in the Eroica Symphony.


The musicians evidently enjoyed playing this work together. And I particularly enjoyed seeing how Fox watched her colleagues hawk-like, grinning repeatedly at various elegant turns of phrase. Popper-Keizer provided a solid harmonic base with his cello playing and frequently looked transported by the music, even when he wasn’t playing. The group relished the surprises in the piece, backing into unexpected modulations as if they’d been doing this together all their lives, springing on a minor key outburst in the coda of the second movement, even digging into an unexpected fugato in the finale with the kind of contrapuntal clarity that comes from years of playing Bach together.

The crowd showed their appreciation for a memorable evening of music making. And there is more to come; the series continues on Sunday, October 14 with a program which will include Beethoven’s Violin Sonata Op. 30, No. 2 and Piano Trio op. 70, No. 2; details are available in BMInt’s “Upcoming Events.”

 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.

Comments Off on Beethoven and Harbison With “Divine Power”