in: Reviews

October 15, 2012

Middle Beethoven Looking Forward and Harbison

by

John Harbison (BMInt staff photo)

Emmanuel Music offered a set of Beethoven chamber and vocal works as their second concert of year’s season focusing on Beethoven’s Middle period, spanning roughly from 1802 to 1812. Each concert also integrates works by Emmanuel’s Season Composer and Principal Guest Conductor, John Harbison. Sunday’s performance in Emmanuel Church’s parish hall showcased repertoire that positions Beethoven in a transition between eras, delightfully engaged with the music of Haydn and Mozart, but always looking forward, perhaps with ever-increasing urgency as his deafness became more pervasive.

Violinist Heather Braun and pianist Randall Hodgkinson had little rest during the performance, and both musicians were continuous sources of energy and verve all afternoon. Braun excels in staccato playfulness and fast passagework, as was immediately obvious from her first notes of the Entrada of Beethoven’s six-movement Serenade in D for Flute, Violin and Viola, op. 25. The work opens with a flute fanfare of sorts, and flutist Jacqueline DeVoe captured the playfulness of the work without being glib. Ryan Turner, Artistic Director for Emmanuel Music, noted that the piece exemplifies what he calls “recreational” Beethoven. Indeed, it is a relatively whimsical work (apropos of the genre), although injected with moments of more reflective lyricism. Violist Jonina Mazzeo partnered well with Braun, particularly in the Entrada and first Minuet and Trio. Braun’s arpeggios were a bit weighty in the “Menuetto” but all three players were sensitive to Beethoven’s emotional contrasts in the score. Braun’s pressure on the bow served her well in the Allegro molto, providing dramatic gestures against the moto perpetuo viola. It was this movement that proved Emmanuel has amassed some of the finest chamber players in the Boston area. The prayerful Andante was followed by well-delineated variations, including a rather transcendent moment from Mazzeo. The viola bears both harmonic and melodic responsibility in the work, and Mazzeo deftly transitioned between these roles with artistic grace and sensibility.

Beethoven’s Sechs Gesänge, Op. 75 sets texts by Goethe for its first three songs, and if anything, highlights the many faces of the poet/author/playwright. It has been a few years since I last had the pleasure of hearing mezzo-soprano Krista River, and I was struck by the richness of her voice, full of velvet undertones, and a much bigger voice than I remember. Her German diction in “Mignon” was exacting and expressive, and she navigated the strophic form of the work with tremendous artistry, bringing new pathos and thought to each verse. Randall Hodgkinson was an equally sensitive collaborator, underscoring Goethe’s poignant moment in the second strophe, “…was hat man dir, du armes Kind…” (What have they done to you, poor child?) with heart-wrenching expressivity.

The force-of-nature that is baritone Dana Whiteside took on the next song in the set, “Neue Liebe, neues Leben,” with a dynamic range of emotions appropriate to a text about succumbing joyfully to the heart’s captivity. Hodgkinson’s spirit was a distinctive boon to the performance that only occasionally suffered from too much pressure from Whiteside’s booming voice. The high notes tested the top of his range and Whiteside seemed less comfortable than he did with the famous devilish “Flea Song” from Faust. Here the singer’s dramatic and comedic abilities came to the fore, with his vocal majesty and inflection. To capture king and flea in a single Lied is no small feat, but Whiteside proved to be an artist of stunning versatility.

Likewise, Krista River, returning for the fourth and fifth songs in the opus, was elastic in her characterization of Gretel (“Gretels Warnung”) through her recollections of the young and handsome Christel, her bitterly late realization of Christel’s false flirtations, her despair at abandonment, and finally the complex combination of indignation and resignation that permeates the final lines of the piece. The first eleven lines of von Halem’s text provide a synopsis/preview of the narrative that ensues, and River encapsulated the entire story in her last three lines of this prelude: “And did not run after me,/Until he could, until he could,/Until he could have it all!” Her performance of “An den fernen Geliebten” was tender, but here it was Hodgkinson who really shone, particularly in his evocation of the text in the second strophe, which amounts to word painting on the part of Beethoven. The piano seemed to usurp the role of the singer for the “Abendlied der Nachtigallen” (serenade of the nightingales), presaging the beauty of River’s final “Auf Wiesderseh’n.”

Beethoven’s Merkenstein, op. 100, is an unapologetically nostalgic and musically lighthearted homage to the ruins of Merkenstein castle in Austria. After the emotional weight of Op. 75, this seemed an odd programming choice, but one assumes it was there to give River and Whiteside a chance to sing together.

Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 7 in C minor, Op. 30, No. 2, closed out the first half of the concert, with Heather Braun and Randall Hodgkinson. Both musicians had meticulous timing in the first movement Allegro, and the dotted rhythms exposed Beethoven as lighthearted, but not recreational (versus the Serenade). Braun seemed a bit tenuous in the Adagio, but more at ease in the Scherzo, although she and Hodgkinson didn’t seem to concur as to the levity in this movement. The finale, however, erased any doubt, as Braun reached into the longer phrases with renewed vitality, and the performers, dare I say it, released every drop of rock n’ roll that Beethoven offers in this final movement. Braun shines most brightly in her virtuosic moments, although her on-stage demeanor tells the audience that she is certainly not there for ego, but for the music. Both Braun and Hodgkinson were a pleasure to watch and hear as interpreters of Beethoven.

The second half of the concert featured John Harbison’s Chaconne written in 2001 on the occasion of composer Andrew Imbrie’s 80th birthday. As the work unfolds over the fundamental bass pattern that gives the work its name, it becomes increasingly discordant and unsettled. Harbison spoke to this beforehand, revealing that the set of variations were really about “something diminishing.” Braun, DeVoe, and Hodgkinson were joined here by Eran Egozy on clarinet/bass clarinet and Michael Curry on cello. The sonorities of the bass clarinet and cello certainly added to the increasing gravitas of the four refrains, but the work seemed too short (a complaint I rarely have). This may emphasize the already innate pragmatism of the work, as life’s brevity is often elucidated by its own diminishing.

Harbison’s Prelude from “Four Psalms”, written in 1998, was a commission from the Israeli Consulate in Chicago for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. This is a stunning work (originally for mezzo-soprano and orchestra) that sets a mystical prayer by Rabbi Amemar from the 5th-century. From the first notes of her cantorial invocation, Krista River transported the listener to a prayerful dream-world that reconciled the sacred and operatic. The climactic melody as the text invokes Biblical figures Hezekiah, Miriam, and Naaman, was emotionally stirring, and the symbiotic relationship between piano and singer became clear. Harbison’s attention to the text was beautifully obvious in the moment he sets “…and like the waters of Jericho through the/ hand of Elisha” to a watery motive in the piano that metamorphoses dreamily into the final stanza about transformation: “…so may you transform/all of my dreams regarding myself/and regarding all of Israel for goodness.”

The final work on the program, Beethoven’s Piano Trio No. 6 in E-flat Major, Op. 70, No. 2, is, as Ryan Turner remarked in the program notes, a “nod to Mozart and Haydn” in its conversational balance, but is peppered with harmonic and motivic surprises that seem to foretell of the composer’s late style. Michael Curry’s rich tone was well-matched to Hodgkinson’s forte moments. I’ve struggled before with the decision to keep the piano at full stick in that room, but Braun and Curry proved themselves up to the challenge. Hodgkinson beautifully executed the sudden shifts in dynamics, particularly in the first movement. Heather Braun’s tone in the graceful beginning of the Allegretto was exquisite, and all three players easily shifted to the middle section that features some unexpected sequences and a diverse texture. At times in the Allegretto, Braun seemed more on top of the beat than her fellow performers, but the strange motivic decay of the movement makes rhythmic synchronicity very challenging. The violin melody of the Allegro ma non troppo was a salve for the slightly unsettling starts and stops where Beethoven seems to channel Haydn, and the Finale was phenomenally energetic. Here all three performers were in perfect balance, and Hodgkinson’s florid fireworks were electrifying, as was the intense accuracy of the punctuation from the violin and cello.

Emmanuel Music’s multi-year survey of Beethoven’s chamber works is a huge undertaking, but an amazing opportunity for Bostonians to connect with the music of one composer in a meaningful way. The voyage of discovery, we can be sure, will continue to bring forth performances of the highest caliber that honor both composer and performer. The final two concerts of Year III of the Beethoven chamber series will take place on February 10 & 24, 2013.

Rebecca Marchand holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and serves on the faculties of Longy School of Music of Bard College and Boston Conservatory. She is the current president of the New England chapter of the American Musicological Society.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful review. I’m glad that you enjoyed the concert. Please note that Krista River has no ‘s’ at the end of her last name.

    Comment by Michael Beattie — October 17, 2012 at 10:49 am

  2. Michael-

    Thanks for your alert reading and for your kind words on Rebecca’s review.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — October 17, 2012 at 7:34 pm

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