in: Reviews

June 11, 2013

Hair-raising Reminders of Mozart

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Eric Hoeprich, clarinet (file photo)

Eric Hoeprich, clarinet (file photo)

The U.S. debut of Mozart’s own violin and viola was perhaps the highest-profile event at this year’s Boston Early Music Festival apart from the centerpiece opera production of Handel’s Almira. The Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation entrusted the instruments to Amandine Beyer and Milos Valent who performed to a packed Jordan Hall on Monday night alongside fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout and clarinetist Eric Hoeprich.

BMInt previously discussed the provenance of these instruments with Matthias Schulz, the Managing and General Artistic Director of the Mozarteum, and addressed questions of their modern significance [here]. From a guarded point of view, presenting them in concert raises unfulfillable expectations and runs the risk of reducing the living, breathing musicians onstage to mere holders of relics.

So, to answer the most pressing question: nothing about these instruments, in and of themselves, is revelatory. Not surprisingly, the violin sounds like a violin, and the viola, a viola. Even in period gut string setups they sound rather anonymous, not wholly unlike any fiddle that might be heard in recital today. The violin is by an unknown German maker and the viola is by an unknown Italian, both from around 1700. To any modern soloist who complains about not owning a Strad: apparently, neither did Mozart.

Of course, their presence onstage creates a physical connection to the past, and they serve as hair-raising reminders that Mozart was a mortal and embodied human being who lived not all that long ago. When he died at 35, he left behind a few worldly possessions and a great deal of otherworldly music. The unique draw on Monday night was the display of the former, but the reason to listen was still the latter.

Beyer and Bezuidenhout opened the program with the Sonata for violin and piano in C major, K. 303. While the violin had a sweetness in the lower registers, it was often unpleasantly shrill higher up. The fortepiano, on the other hand, was a revealing and convincing conduit for the music. Bezuidenhout played a modern American reproduction of a five-octave Viennese fortepiano which actually sounded less familiar to modern ears than the vintage 18th-century violin. The keyboard’s thin yet velvety tone restored clarity to Mozart’s score and revealed fresh colors: the high, middle, and low registers are more differentiated than on the modern piano, and octave doublings that sound only like muddled reinforcement on the Steinway actually sound like separate voices on the fortepiano.

Following the C major sonata, Bezuidenhout performed Mozart’s Prelude and Fugue for piano solo in C Major, K. 394. While it was the one piece not to feature a Mozart instrument, this performance was the real revelation of the evening. Some people await the discovery of unknown Mozart sketches or manuscripts in dusty attics, but for most of us there are still personal discoveries to be made in the known catalog. This is a strange and profound piece: it’s the spirit of Mozart channeled through the contrapuntal style of Bach, touched by premonitions of 19th– century Romanticism. For a piece in the key of C major, the Prelude spends a lot of time visiting the minor mode where it broods with improvisatory flair. The Fugue is built on a melancholic subject and finds a simple, resigned expressivity within contrapuntal complexity. Bezuidenhout gave a contemplative and moving interpretation and emerged as the evening’s standout artist.

This was followed by the Trio for clarinet, viola, and fortepiano in E-flat major, “Kegelstatt”, K. 498. Despite Valent’s best efforts, the viola — to be blunt — sounded too much like a viola: nasal in tone and sluggish to respond. The instrument was cut down to a smaller size in the 19th-century, so it wasn’t even a good representation of what Mozart heard. The performance overall was fine nonetheless: Bezuidenhout again shone, and Hoeprich displayed a clear tone and great agility on the early clarinet, which surprisingly didn’t sound remarkably different from the modern instrument.

Kristian Bezuidenhout (file photo)

Kristian Bezuidenhout (file photo)

After intermission, Beyer and Valent performed the Duo for violin and viola in G major, K. 423. This was the one chance to hear Mozart’s two instruments together, and they actually made a reasonable pair. Without a bass voice, this duo lacks sonic grounding, but the Adagio is rather appealing and the final Allegro is brisk and fluid. (Some of the worst stereotypes of period instruments, however, were confirmed: they didn’t hold pitch well and required frequent tuning between movements.)

The program closed with the Sonata for violin and piano in D major, K. 306. This piece offered greater depth than the opening C major Sonata, and was overall the most flattering display of Mozart’s fiddle. Its tone was well suited to the sprightly Allegro con spirito, and the Andante cantabile was sleepy yet unsettled in the hands of Beyer and Bezuidenhout.

In the end, Mozart’s violin and viola are probably more valuable as prompts for reflection and as physical reminders of the past than as concert instruments. So luckily they will be on public display this Wednesday from 10am to 1pm at the Revere Hotel. Also, tomorrow at 7:00,  WGBH’s Fraser Performance Studio will host a showcase/concert. Picking up Mozart’s violin and viola will be two of Boston’s most honored period-instrument performers: violinist and Aston Magna Festival artistic director Dan Stepner, joined by violist Anne Black and other members of Aston Magna. Parts of both the concert at Fraser and the Jordan Hall concert will be broadcast on Sunday June 16 at 3 PM on WCRB Classical New England.

There are also many other interesting events at BEMF this week, including a late-night Jordan Hall harpsichord recital by Bezuidenhout, stepping in for Kenneth Weiss, tonight at 11pm. He’s an artist to hear.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a Cambridge-based composer who’s recently been in residence at the Banff Centre and the Hambidge Center. Before that he attended Bard College where he studied with Joan Tower and George Tsontakis and earned a B.M. in composition and a B.A. in philosophy.

2 Comments

  1. It was, indeed, an honor to have a chance to perform on Mozart’s viola with Dan Stepner playing the Mozart violin last night at WGBH’s Fraser Studio! The concert was not actually broadcast live, but parts of both last night’s concert at Fraser and the Jordan Hall concert will be broadcast on Sunday June 16 at 3 PM on WCRB Classical New England.

    Comment by Anne Black — June 13, 2013 at 4:53 pm

  2. Benjamin Pesetsky’s perceptive and admirably neutral review gathers together a number of demonstrable facts and æsthetic calls, not the least of which are his comments on the sound of the two string instruments and on the beauty of Rod Regier’s (uncredited) Walther piano copy. I offer these comparative observations.

    As is always the case, even in a very fine room like NEC’s Jordan Hall, it is where you sit that determines a big part of what you come away with. Sit hard left at orchestra level, and you will hear not only less piano sound, but you will also hear dramatically less richness, fullness, and clarity. This is so for all keyboard instruments in all halls, but the visual aspect of “the hands” naturally speaks strongly to many concert goers.

    Similarly, Mozart’s attractive, anonymous Mittenwald (?) violin and his adequate but workaday Alto Adige viola – both so generously shared with this North American listenership – left different impressions around the hall. I found the violin’s sound to be exceptional. It was flexible, subtle, delicate. I was struck by its family resemblance to instruments by Stainer, Kloz, and comparable others made in Tirol/Süd-Bayern. I was not at all disappointed in its sound, which came to my particular seat (first rising bank of seats to the right of the orchestra level) in excellent balance with the fine Walther-Regier piano. That it lacks the more potent, penetrating, and focused Cremonese character is due, I submit, rather less to its quality, whatever that may be, than to our hearing the less familiar æsthetic of Tirol & Mittenwald luthiers, and hearing it in a solo context in a big hall. Had I sat house left for this concert, I am not convinced that I’d have experienced the two Mozarteum strings and the piano as advantageously or as flatteringly as I did. Where you listen from does make a difference, so seat choice is important.

    Hearing a string from “the back” certainly gives you a different impression, and it is the folks I talked to who heard it house left – out of the line of fire, if you will – who expressed disappointment. When I spoke with friends and collegues who sat to the right, most agreed that it was a modest instrument, but that, in Amandine Bayer’s memorably deft and fine-hued approach to these intimately conversational scores, the instrument was more than adquate to the challenge. The rather mediocre Mozart viola’s another matter, but I’ll lay long odds that brilliant Milos Valent could play a strung cigar box and make us clamor for more.

    Comment by Christopher Greenleaf — June 14, 2013 at 3:49 pm

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