in: Reviews

February 11, 2013

Harbison and Beethoven on Newbury Street

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Ryan Turner, artistic director of Emmanuel Music, described the programmatic glue of Sunday’s post-blizzard program as “theme and variations.” The fine group of four Beethoven lieder he chose reflected this conception: their texts were all variations on the idea of the variegated nature—bliss and suffering, hope and ecstasy—of love, as in most lyric German poetry of that period: Liebe, Sehnsucht, Blume, and Grab are the watchwords. The latter three songs put the lie to the common misperception that Beethoven’s songs are emotionally generic, devoid of word-painting, and largely in strophic or modified strophic form. Even when Beethoven was working to the commission of a publisher, as he was in his Scottish folksong arrangements, for instance, he always found ways to enhance his materials. And when Beethoven was taken by the words, he could invest much emotion indeed. Though the first song, Der Liebende, was strophic, tenor Frank Kelley’s highlighting of key words gave subtle nuances of mood. The three succeeding songs, actually more dramatic scenes than mere songs, Die laute Klage, An die Hoffnung, and Freudvoll und leidvoll were through-composed and engaged Beethoven profoundly. Utilizing unexpected, even disorienting harmonies and harmonic progressions, these pieces clearly showed that Schubert’s revolutionizing of the genre, just a few years off, did not happen in a vacuum. Kelley and pianist Michael Lewin gave intense performances, not shying away from extreme contrasts and jolting drama. These songs, particularly An die Hoffnung, which begins, “Is there a God…?” took the singer close to his limits of his range and technique, but Kelley held nothing back. He was alert and expressive, his instrument as honeyed as I have heard in recent years. His voice was perfectly suited to the room and to the dramatic expression the songs demand. Performing from memory with an actor’s technique, he was often on his toes, literally, to sell the songs to the highly moved audience, and Lewin was with him all the way.

John Harbison’s 2009 Leonard Stein Anagrams for Piano was not built on the principle of theme and variations. Rather, the composer constructed 13 anagrams on the name of his friend and colleague Stein,  responding to each with a minute-long sketch or character piece. There were no musical references between or among the sketches; there was variety instead of variation. To give an idea of Harbison’s verbal wit, I list the anagrams:

Harbison and friend (BMInt staff montage)

Harbison and friend (BMInt staff montage)

1 – I’d learn tones
2 – Note slid near
3 – End tonal rise
4 – Liar send tone
5 – Listen, a drone (A silent drone)
6 – Learns to dine
7 – L A trend: noise
8 – Rinse tone, lad1
9 – Linen ear-dots
10 – Tender as lion
11 – Rest: no denial
12 – Earns toil-end
12A – (Stein was triskaidekaphobic) Done: entrails

His musical wit was fully the equal, and the sketches were quite evocative of the imagery, in a compact but flavorful language redolent of Stein himself (apparently) as well as Schoenberg. May I point out that the group was entertaining also because of Michael Lewin’s engaged and dramatic playing? Lewin coached the piece with Harbison, who reported being quite pleased with the performance. Modern composers are not always so lucky with their interpreters.

In the beginning, there was a performance of Beethoven’s Sonata for Piano and Violin in A Major, Op. 30 No. 6, which did not impress. The afternoon concluded with Beethoven’s Piano Trio No. 11 in G major Op. 121a, 10 Variations on “Ich bin der Schenider Kakadu.” Before the theme, reminiscent of Mozart’s birdcatcher aria, is stated, Beethoven treats us to a long and powerful adagio introduction of surprising drama, considering the ditty it precedes. The 10 variations are of variable interest. While some are instrumental showpieces, others, especially the final, are striking examples of late Beethoven. Violinist Danielle Maddon and cellist David Russell joined Lewin for a no-holds-barred rendition.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.

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