Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A Graduate Recital Based on Frederick William II of Prussia

Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), Eugenio Solinas, the cellist who had distinguished himself with his expressive ground bass work in this past weekend’s performance of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, gave the Graduate Recital for his Professional Studies Diploma in Baroque cello. The better part of his program shifted focus from the English Baroque period of the late seventeenth century to the Classical period of the late eighteenth century. Indeed, the focal point of the program was the court of King Frederick William II of Prussia, who has not been remembered as a particularly effective monarch but was apparently no slouch at the cello. Both Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven wrote music for him, but both the circumstances and the results differed significantly.

Having given his first public performance in Vienna in March of 1795, Beethoven recognized that, as today, touring was an important element in career development. Thus, 1796 saw him in Berlin, where he was introduced to the King and was able to give several performances at court. He also composed his two Opus 5 cellos sonatas and dedicated them to the King. They were played for the King by cellist Jean-Louis Duport (one of two brothers, both talented cellists) with Beethoven accompanying at the keyboard.

One should probably be careful about any reference to accompaniment, however. As was the case with all of the violin sonatas, these cello sonatas were published as sonatas for piano “with accompaniment.” Listening to the piano part of the first of the Opus 5 sonatas in F major, which was Solinas’ selection for last night, it is not difficult to imagine Beethoven taking every possible opportunity to upstage Duport. Nevertheless, Solinas clearly had his own sense of personal character residing in the cello part; and his expressiveness contributed effectively to giving him a rightful place in the virtual spotlight.

To be fair, however, his accompanist Elizabeth Crecca, playing a fortepiano, did not seem intent on channeling the brash spirits of the young Beethoven in her performance. She seemed content with the role of the accompanist, even if that was not the priority that Beethoven had in mind. Unfortunately, from that submissive position, she seemed to overlook the abundance of witty gestures that distinguish the piano part, perhaps originally intended to encourage Duport to respond in kind. This left Solinas to carry all of the rhetorical water, so to speak; and, while he was more than up to the task, the absence of any sense of playful exchange detracted from the full scope of pleasures that this music affords.

Solinas also had another way to endow Duport with a bit more of that virtual spotlight than Beethoven may have intended. Duport’s reputation today probably depends more on the set of 21 études for solo cello included in his treatise on cello technique. Solinas played the seventh of these, a devilish dynamo of arpeggio figures in the key of G minor that seems to be the cello response to the C major prelude that begins the first book of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier:

from IMSLP, by way of Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Solinas negotiated Duport’s challenges with a steady hand and solid bowing technique, allowing the listener to focus on the underlying harmonic progressions and the dynamic contours through which Duport endowed this étude with its own unique rhetorical stance.

Mozart’s encounter with the Prussian King was less fortunate. By 1788 Mozart was seriously impoverished; and, in the spring of 1789, he left Vienna to visit Prague, Leipzig, Dresden, and Berlin in hopes of improving his financial state. His efforts to gain the attention (and support) of King Frederick William got no further than a meeting with Jean-Pierre Duport (Jean-Louis’ brother), who was the director of royal chamber music. Nevertheless, without any encouragement, Mozart wrote three string quartets for the King. (His plan had been to write six, but he only lived to write the first three.) These were written with the King’s cello talents in mind; but there was no sign that Mozart was ever acknowledged, let alone compensated, for his efforts.

Last night’s program concluded with the second of those three quartets, K. 589 in B-flat major. Solinas was joined by violinists Sarah Bleile and Hui Hsuan Hsu and violist Luis Bellorín. He introduced the performance with the sad account of its circumstances, which shadowed the sunny optimism of the music itself with a cloud of poignancy. Nevertheless, the positive spirits prevailed in the performance itself, allowing the attentive listener to relish Mozart’s particular knack for allowing the low strings to shine with as much light as the violins. Solinas definitely knew how to leave his audience feeling good on their way home.

In his opening selection Solinas applied his historically-informed background to a Bach performance that one does not encounter very often. The last of the six solo cello suites, BWV 1012 in D major, was written for a five-string instrument known as the violoncello piccolo. This involved adding an E string above the A string, which is the highest on the four-string instrument. While this allows for a wider pitch range, the instrument itself turns out to be more unwieldy; and Solinas talked the audience through the challenges imposed by its physical design. One could definitely appreciate those challenges in Solinas’ performance, which definitely lacked the consistent reliability that we tend to expect from listening to too many recordings.

Instead, this was an example of a performance arising from a negotiation between “what you want” and “what you get.” (Baroque flutist Judith Miller once offered an engaging sidebar on this process of negotiation as part of a master class she gave at SFCM several years ago.) As a negotiator, Solinas consistently strove to keep Bach’s intentions in that virtual spotlight. In general he effectively captured the spirit, even when the “flesh” of the instrument had its obstreperous interventions. Beyond those technical challenges, the only real weakness seemed to come from a failure to capture the dance rhetoric behind the Allemande and Courante movements. (In another SFCM master class, Baroque violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock reminded the students that “Bach really knew his dances.”) Still, this approach to Bach was an informative journey of discovery; and such journeys frequently lead one down bumpy roads.

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