in: Reviews

February 4, 2014

Beethoven Visits Cambridge

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Violinist Susanna Ogata and keyboardist Ian Watson have inaugurated their Beethoven Project, performing the composer’s entire sonata literature for violin and piano and solo piano in a series of Boston-area concerts. I heard their first offering Monday for the Cambridge Society for Early Music at Christ Church Cambridge, where they played the Sonata for Piano and Violin no. 4 in A minor, op. 23; the “Funeral March” Piano Sonata no. 12 in A-flat Major, op. 26; and the “Kreutzer” Sonata for Piano and Violin no. 9 in A major, op. 47. The result was stunning: we were transported through sound to Beethoven’s time. I felt the master vivdly before me, as if  playing his music his way on his own instrument.

Ogata, an accomplished local player of chamber music and orchestral music of all genres including jazz, played on a period violin with gut strings and a short neck. The sound was quite different from modern rebuilt Strads, lighter and richer in the mid-tones. It blended perfectly with the fortepiano. There were times when I could clearly hear all the notes but could not tell by tonal color which instrument had played them. This was wonderful—the instruments were together not just in pitch and tempo but blending in tone. You could have told them apart by vibrato, except Ogata used very little, and just as an ornament. It was made all the more beautiful for being rare.

Ian Watson is one of the more versatile musicians around Boston with many reviews in the Intelligencer including this interesting one. From England, he trained as an organist, winning many prizes, and plays keyboards of all types. Highly regarded as a conductor, he is artistic director of the period-instrument ensemble the Arcadia Players and Chorus, and is music director at First Parish in Lincoln. He has played and conducted seemingly everywhere, even for the Queen; I felt in the presence of royalty. In a talk before the “Funeral March” sonata, he demonstrated the enormous range of color and loudness that the instrument on stage could deliver, and then delivered that range and color in his performance.

Perhaps the star of the concert was the fortepiano, a copy of ones that Beethoven owned. It was modeled after instruments made by Walter & Sohn in 1805, with the addition of an una corda that Beethoven desired. It had a sustain lever activated by the right knee and a moderator lever that interposed tiny felt pads between the hammers and the strings to mellow the sound. I wish modern pianos had such a device; its effect was really beautiful. This particular instrument was built by Paul McNulty in 2000. After training in Boston, McNulty moved to Amsterdam 1995, and finally to the Czech Republic, where he could find the authentic woods he needed. This instrument of his is the finest fortepiano I have ever heard. The treble register is crystalline, bright and clear; when Watson played lightning scales, the notes glistened like strings of pearl. The middle range is darker while also clear, somewhere between clarinets and oboes; it could be powerful, even angry-sounding when pushed, and Watson, like Beethoven, pushed it hard. The bass was strong and buzzy like a trombone or an organ pedal reed. What astounding colors from a keyboard instrument! You could play a Bach trio sonata on it and be amazed you were not hearing an organ.

A major advantage of this instrument is the short sustain of the notes. On modern instruments, the many fast runs that Beethoven scores blend together. On this instrument each note stands out, as if it were popping off the page. We could hear what Beethoven was thinking and what he was hearing (he still had moderate hearing when he wrote opus 26, 1800-1801).

All of the pieces were revelations; I felt I was hearing them for the first time. The blend was extraordinary, as I say, the tonal and loudness range amazing, and the violence that could be elicited from that instrument ferocious. I could picture Beethoven breaking strings right and left. (None broke last night—better metal alloys, I suspect.) The “Funeral March” showed the fortepiano in all its colors, and Watson gave it a dynamic range from strong and majestic to tender and pianissimo.

I must end with kudos to the owner of the piano, Timothy Hamilton of Cambridge, who was busily touching up the tuning when we arrived. For the opening opus 23 sonata, both fortepiano and violin were beautifully in tune, surprisingly so for anyone familiar with a modern piano and a modern violinist playing with heavy vibrato. But by the end of the “Funeral March” sonata, the instrument definitely needed a brushup, which Hamilton lovingly gave it during intermission. The “Kreutzer” following, then, was everything it should be.

David Griesinger is a Harvard-trained physicist who is eminent in the field of sound and music. His website is here.

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