Pianist Ira Braus and cellist Mihai Tetel, both members of the faculty of the University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music, offered a program of music from the late 18th and early 19th centuries this afternoon. It was Braus’s third appearance on the Frederick Collection’s series, but Tetel’s first, and, we were told by our hostess Patricia Frederick, his first performance with an early piano. Braus chose the Collection’s ca. 1805-1810 Katholnig , described in a review here. The written program notes gave no information about the cello, Tetel made no comments about it, but it is clearly a modern instrument with a metal set-up.
The Katholnig is an instrument at the stage in the development of the pianoforte that represents the last sound which Beethoven truly heard. It is a rather soft one for our ears, but generally makes a good partner for a string instrument because there is little risk of its overpowering the latter; hence the duo can become a true partnership with an easily realized harmonious blend of sounds rather than a struggle either to obtain or prevent the dominance or prominence of either instrument. The selections played were three sets of variations by Ludwig van Beethoven, two of them based on melodies from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, two transcriptions by modern cellists of works, one by Beethoven, written for other instruments, and a single sonata by Luigi Boccherini, a cello virtuoso, that was written for “violoncello & Bc” (Basso continuo), meaning that it could have been played with a harpsichord, a bassoon, or another string instrument, including a finger-plucked one like a guitar or lute, dating from 1770.
Each half of the program surrounded a work with two of Beethoven’s, all four appearing roughly in chronological order of their composition, opening with his Twelve Variations in G on “See the Conqu’ring Hero” from Handel’s Judas Maccabeus, [HWV 63 (1746)], WoO 45 (1796) and closing with his Andante con varazione in D for mandolin and harpsichord, WoO 44/2b (1796) as arranged by Stephen Isserlis. The former offered some solo moments for both instruments, with some favoritism for the piano, interspersed among the duets. The central work was a transcription of miscellaneous movements of a Divertimento in D by Franz Joseph Haydn made by Gregor Piatigorsky and arranged in a sort of three-movement sonata: Adagio, Menuet, and Allegro di molto. While Tetel used scores for the two Beethoven works, he played this one from memory.
The second half featured the two sets of Beethoven variations from Die Zauberflöte [K. 620 (1790-91)], opening with the only one that was published during his lifetime, Twelve Variations in F on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen,” Op. 66 (1798) and closing with the Seven Variations in E–flat on “Bei Männern, welche Leibe fühlen,” WoO 46 (1801). Like the program’s opener, its closer offered some solo moments, but here only for the piano [Most of the Beethoven oeuvre for the two instruments lists the piano first on the title page]. They embraced the Boccherini Sonata No. 4 in A, in which Tetel played the first movement from a visibly ancient and tattered score, but set his music stand aside to play the remaining two movements from memory.
Initially, the age difference between the instruments and Tetel’s inexperience in this early-piano realm led the cello to overpower the piano, on which Braus seemed to be holding back, but they quickly found a good balance. The works that Tetel played from memory were striking; his expression and interpretation simply astonishing. There were some echo effects in the Haydn that were magical, demonstrating his ability to produce fine nuances in dynamics, making this somewhat cobbled-together work the most exquisite of the recital. On the other hand, the Boccherini sonata was the most spectacular, showing off Tetel’s bravura skills in addition. Its movements are slightly un-traditional, opening with an Affetuoso rather than the standard Allegro or Allegretto, then proceeding to a slow Adagio, and building to the usual concluding Allegro climax. Tetel’s playing style here tended towards the Romantic, but not excessively, was remarkably deft, and remained classically precise. Braus’ partnering, for which he is particularly known, improved noticeably as the program progressed, as did the balance between the two instruments.
The Beethoven variations are always enjoyable pieces to hear, exercises in clever ingenuity rather than in depth of expression, hence seeming ‘light’ while in fact often being difficult to execute because of the internal differences among their sections, and the challenge of making them come across as smoothly flowing compositions, for the most part all well realized here. Nonetheless, the afternoon generally remained in the ‘charming’ and ‘pleasant’ rather than the ‘brilliant’ realm because of the preponderance of these on the program. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.