in: Reviews

October 21, 2013

More Beethoven at Emmanuel

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Emmanuel Music presented the first concert of the fourth and final season of its Beethoven Chamber Series at Emmanuel Church on Sunday afternoon.  Among the top tier of composers, it feels like Bach and Mozart receive more than their fair share of dedicated concerts and festivals while all-Beethoven programs [piano sonatas and the Ninth Symphony notwithstanding] might be slightly less common. But Emmanuel is proving that a well-planned and well-played Beethoven program doesn’t have to be overpowering, and in fact a full helping of Beethoven can affect perceptions of the works themselves and be very rewarding.

On the first half, violinist Heidi Braun-Hill and pianist Randall Hodgkinson played the Op. 47 “Kreutzer Sonata” and tenor William Hite and pianist Brett Hodgdon performed the Op. 98 An die ferne Geliebte. Braun-Hill voiced the opening chords of the sonata with a sturdy richness to which Hodgkinson replied chillingly, establishing the oppositional rhetoric characteristic of the work. This duo’s account had qualities of an appropriately Beethovenian struggle: a dominating yet un-showoffy performance that would never fool you into thinking it was easy to execute. The second movement gave Braun-Hill a chance to display her crystalline yet gentle tone in the higher registers. While the final presto seemed to loose a little momentum in the middle, both players found enough energy reserves to dig in again and were met with an ovation from the audience at the double barline.

The massive sonata seemed to loom over the following song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte, which ended up feeling rather diminutive and much lighter than it might in another context. While the “Kreutzer” is supposedly able to effect some dangerous psychological states in performers and listeners alike (think Tolstoy), An die ferne Geliebte is less expressively universal, and instead reflects the specific instance of the psychological state of its composer. The work is generally cited as the earliest true song cycle in the literature, and is believed to have been influenced by Beethoven’s fixation on his “Immortal Beloved”—the mystery woman he loved. Here it was thoroughly appealing but light: it did not feel as if the relationship in question evoked an existence-defining problem. Hite and Hodgdon flew through the six connected songs at a fast clip with seamless transitions. In the first, it sounded as if Hite had perhaps let his voice rest too long before coming onstage, but he quickly warmed up and the cycle as a whole was vocally strong and expressively resonant.

After the intermission Braun-Hill and Hodgkinson returned to the stage and were joined by cellist David Russell for the Symphony No. 2 in D Major in a surprising piano trio reduction by Beethoven himself. In some brief comments, Ryan Turner, Emmanuel’s artistic director, promised the arrangement would offer a new and fresh perspective on the directness of Beethoven’s musical argument. This was borne out in the performance as the trio dispatched the explosive first movement, the florid Larghetto, the buoyant scherzo, and the almost comic Allegro molto with great precision. The trio reduction felt natural, if not quite native—there was still a sense that the strings were covering multiple parts and the scoring wasn’t quite as facile as in Beethoven’s “real” piano trios. But a Beethoven portrait series—even a chamber music one—can’t be complete without some foray into his symphonic output. This fit the bill.

Emmanuel Music’s Beethoven Chamber Series continues on Sunday November 3 at 4:00 PM with the Op. 126 Six Bagatelles, the Op. 110 Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat, and the Op. 120 Diabelli Variations.

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.

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