Saturday, March 22, 2014

Ensemble PHOENIX performs Hummel's settings of Mozart and Beethoven symphonies

Amidst deafening thunderclaps and forks of lightning illuminating the night sky on March 12th 2014, we mounted the steps to the Austrian Hospice of the Holy Family in the Via Dolorosa in the Jerusalem’s Old City. The evening’s event was “A New Angle: Hummel’s Chamber Versions of Mozart and Beethoven” performed by Ensemble PHOENIX members Flautist Moshe Aron Epstein, violinist Jonathan Keren and keyboard player Marina Minkin, with PHOENIX founder and director Myrna Herzog on ‘cello.

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837), a prominent composer of the late Classical period, was best known for his solo compositions and piano concertos, but his oeuvre includes chamber music, operas and sacred works. His groundbreaking three-volume treatise “A Complete Theoretical and Practical Course on the Art of Pianoforte Playing”, published in 1828, was bought by thousands of musicians throughout Europe. Hummel was born in Bratislava. When his family moved to Vienna in 1786, he went to study with Mozart, with whom he lived for two years; these two years paved the way for his career as a piano virtuoso, composer and conductor. After a concert tour of Europe at age ten, Hummel and his father spent time in London, where Hummel studied with Clementi. Back in Vienna in 1793, Hummel, now 14, began studies with Albrechtsberger, turning his attention from the concert stage to teaching and composing. His first major appointment was in April 1804, when he took the position of concertmaster to Prince Nikolaus Esterh├ízy at his Eisenstadt court, from which the composer was dismissed in 1811. Returning to live in Vienna, he toured Europe with much success as a pianist and conductor. His last posts were as Kapellmeister in Stuttgart (1816) and Weimar (1819).

Musical arrangement was central throughout Hummel’s career. These transcriptions served as house music. Dr. Myrna Herzog introduced the concert by reminding the audience that people of the time did not attend many concerts and those who played instruments could enjoy familiarizing themselves with these orchestral works by playing them at home. Many 4-hand piano arrangements of symphonies exist from that time. Hummel’s transcriptions for more instruments, however, create a more orchestrated soundscape. He produced some fifty transcriptions of works in a variety of musical genres, from opera overtures to symphonies and chamber music.

We were to hear two arrangements played by instruments of his time: Moshe Aron Epstein played a late Classical/early Romantic flute built by George Rudall (London, 1827), Jonathan Keren played on an English violin of the late 18th century, Marina Minkin on an 1800 Baas fortepiano, and Myrna Herzog on a ‘cello built by Andrea Castagnery (Paris, c.1740). Herzog and Keren were using Classical bows, producing a sound very different to that heard when playing with Baroque bows. The salon of the Austrian Hospice could only be considered the ideal setting; its side walls painted by F.Eichele and J.Kaltenbach, with four biblical scenes on the ceiling painted by an unknown wandering artist, transported the audience back in time to experience what would have been music-making in a private home in the early 19th century.

Hummel’s arrangement of Mozart's works are an eloquent mark of respect to his teacher. In 1823 and 1824, he received the commission for these arrangements from J.R.Schulz, a musician/publisher living in England at the time, a good businessman and negotiator. These arrangements were completed during Hummel's time as Kapellmeister at the Weimar court. They display a deep understanding of Mozart’s music and thinking; it is known that Hummel invested much time into writing these arrangements and that the outcome was lucrative. Schultz wanted Hummel to change some of Mozart’s harmonies, the request supported by fellow composer Ignaz Moscheles, but Hummel was not comfortable with the idea. Changes he did make tie in with contemporary (early Romantic) taste and his own virtuosity, making the piano prominent in these settings. To create a sense of orchestral sound, he made some rhythmic changes, inserting crescendo signs and also adding more contrasted dynamic markings. He took a more modern approach to the manner of ornamenting, abandoning the Baroque practice of starting an embellishment a second above the melody note; he also gave each movement precise metronome markings (not that early metronomes were precise).

In a carefully balanced reading of Hummel’s setting of W.A.Mozart’s Symphony no.38 in D major, the distinctive sounds of the four instruments played off against each other in a combination of sounds that formed a vividly-colored interwoven musical fabric, yet one highly personal and articulately delineated by nature of the timbres of the four instruments and their players. With Marina Minkin’s spirited treatment of the virtuosic keyboard part, the ‘cello’s support present in its imperative role as the bass timbre, violin (Keren) and flute (Epstein) communicated closely in interaction bristling with charm and tenderness. Moshe Aron Epstein’s secure, stable sound came across as effortless, the 1827 Rudall flute sounding warm, mellow and solid. With Jonathan Keren, no gesture passed him by without receiving response, shape, expression and affect. The Baas fortepiano is proving to be no wimp; following recent work on it by restorer Zamir Havkin, its unbridled sound dazzled and excited more than ever under Minkin’s fingers. Its uniquely gregarious timbre is not to be missed by anyone interested in historical instruments. With no intention to imitate a symphony orchestra and no apology for the absence of clarinets, Hummel’s setting of the “Prague” Symphony was an uplifting experience.

For many years, Hummel enjoyed a close friendship with Beethoven, this more than once marred by disagreements, the last of which taking place in the late 1810s, possibly over Hummel’s arrangements of Beethoven’s music. Then, hearing that Beethoven was very ill, Hummel traveled from Weimar to visit the great master before his death. At Beethoven’s wish, Hummel improvised at his memorial concert. In Hummel’s 1826 arrangement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony no.1 in C major, the keyboard player is, once again, presented with a score abundant in challenges; Marina Minkin took them on impressively. The quartet juxtaposed the drama with the cantabile aspects of the symphony, the tutti substantial, warm and satisfying, the more minimally orchestrated (and exposed) moments searching, fragile and carefully crafted.

No season goes by without Dr. Myrna Herzog offering audiences new insight into rare works or seldom-heard settings of familiar works. This unique program constituted more than just a musical curio: here was superb house-music of times past delivered with stylish and well-informed performance. Elated and inspired, some listeners stayed on, not ready to leave the venue before engaging in lively discussion with the artists on Hummel's arrangements before braving the elements outside.

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