Monday, December 17, 2018

Imaginative Coupling of Beethoven and Mozart

It is not unusual to encounter compositions by both Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on the same chamber music program. However, yesterday afternoon at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco Symphony (SFS) musicians presenting the latest Chamber Music Series program used those two composers as “bookends” for the entire program, conjoining them in a rather imaginative way. The program concluded with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 581 clarinet quintet in A major, composed in 1789, only about two years before the composer’s death. At the other end the first selection was Beethoven’s Opus 81b sextet in E-flat major, composed in 1795, making it part of the first decade that Beethoven spent living in Vienna.

The link between these two compositions was reinforced by the sharing of three of the performers, violinists Wyatt Underhill and Helen Kim and cellist Sébastien Gringras. This made for a somewhat Janus-faced ensemble, first looking forward to the young Beethoven “marketing himself” in the Vienna of Joseph Haydn, Antonio Salieri, and (of course) Mozart. Then, at the end of the program, the group looked back at one of the highlights of Mozart’s final years.

Of these two offerings K. 581 made the more significant impression. To some extent that would be due to it having been the more “mature” of the pieces; but it also reflected the adventurous spirit that Mozart brought to orienting a chamber quintet around the clarinet. It was written for Anton Stadler, whom Mozart first encountered shortly after his arrival in Vienna in 1781. Stadler quickly became a fixture in playing Mozart’s music on both clarinet and basset horn; but K. 581 gave him the opportunity to play with a string quartet, rather than either an orchestra or some assortment of wind players.

Over the course of four movements, Mozart provided Stadler with the opportunity to express himself in an impressive diversity of rhetorical settings. His relationship to the string players alternated between blending and contrasting; and, in the final variations movement, he had ample opportunity to demonstrate virtuoso talents that would have been out of place in other settings. This afternoon clarinetist Carey Bell clearly appreciated the richness of the score that Mozart had written for Stadler; but, in playing with a string quartet, he made it clear that he understood when to be a “team player.”

Kim led the quartet with Underhill taking second violin, while violist Katie Kadarauch complemented Gringras’ cello work. Listening to these performers, it was not difficult to imagine that K. 581 may have first been performed when Stadler got together with that string quartet in which Mozart played viola and Haydn played second violin, joined by Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf on first violin and Johann Baptist Wanhal on cello. Mozart clearly wanted this to be a gathering of equals, meaning that the spotlight moved around more than might be expected.

For example, the Menuetto movements has two trios, the first being taken only by the strings with the clarinet only joining in for the second. On the other hand the set of variations in the final movement provide virtuoso opportunities for all the players. Nevertheless, the clarinet is given a bit of an extra boost after several variations have elapsed; and this was where Bell’s capacity for tour de force performance really shined.

To be fair Mozart’s K. 581 tends to get far more “exposure” than Beethoven’s Opus 81b. Thus, for many, K. 581 allowed the audience to leave with a comforting sense of familiarity. The Beethoven offering, on the other other, was likely to be a “first contact” for just about everyone in the audience. (In my case it was a “first encounter” with a performance, rather than a recording.)

Furthermore, the instrumentation turned out to be as novel as the music itself. Once again, there was a string quartet, led this time by Underhill with Kim on second violin and Jonathan Vinocour on viola. However, the structure was that of a sextet with both of the other instruments being horns, played by Daniel Hawkins and Jessica Valeri. Given that horns did not have valves when Beethoven wrote Opus 81b, it must have been devilishly difficult to play. On the other hand, if Beethoven’s goal was to attract attention, he certainly picked a unique way to do it!

Beethoven made the move from Bonn to Vienna late in 1792. His original intention was to establish himself as a pianist; but he had several composition teachers, the best known of whom was Haydn. By 1795 it was clear that composition had become a major activity. His first public performance was of one of his piano concertos, most likely Opus 19 in B-flat major but possibly Opus 15 in C major; and this was the year of his first publication, the three Opus 1 piano trios.

However, this was also a time when Beethoven was exploring different ways of working with winds in chamber music. By 1795 he had explored a variety of different combinations of oboes, clarinets, horns, and bassoons; and Opus 81b is the first example that brings strings into the picture. It is hard to imagine that Beethoven did not run into any problems of balance; but, given that the score was not published until 1810, it is possible that this was an “exercise on paper” long before he had to worry about how it would actually be performed.

Yesterday afternoon’s players did a noble job of dealing with those problems of balance, but they did not always succeed. There was some impression that both Underhill and Kim, relatively recent SFS members, were still adjusting to the physical setting in Davies for chamber music performance. Compared with Vinocour and Gingras, both of whom have made regular appearances in Chamber Music Series concerts, both violinists sounded relatively weak. This was problematic when trying to balance with the two horns, both of which were given demanding, but also somewhat obstreperous, parts by Beethoven. In all likelihood, Beethoven had intended this to be another opportunity in which he could exercise his wit; but that sense of humor rarely emerged from a group that seemed to be still learning to play as an ensemble at the same time that they were trying to get a handle on Beethoven’s score.

Sandwiched between Beethoven and Mozart was a particularly distinctive “outlier,” the Opus 20 piano quartet in E major by Sergei Taneyev. Most likely this was prepared by violinist Victor Romasevich, who has long been a champion of little known works by Russian composers, primarily in the period of time between Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Opus 20 was completed in 1906, and it is definitely an impressive undertaking. Romasevich and his colleagues, Wayne Roden on viola, Jill R. Brindel on cello, and Marilyn Thompson on piano, gave the score a capable and expressive reading, making the performance an informative journey of discovery.

On the other hand it is not difficult to think of this as “music of a setting sun,” so to speak. After all, 1906 was the year in which Arnold Schoenberg completed his first (Opus 9) chamber symphony. He was still working in a tonal framework, since the piece is definitely in E major; but his preference for fourths over fifths was disorienting when that piece was first performed. (For that matter, there are still plenty of listeners today that are disoriented!) Meanwhile, back in Russia, Alexander Scriabin was just beginning to experiment with his own distinctive approaches to the ambiguities inherent in dissonance. In that framework Taneyev’s music is more than a little retrospective; but, when taken on its own terms in a performance as solid that the one given yesterday afternoon, the piece reveals its merits to the attentive listener with little difficulty.

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