Sunday, November 3, 2019

Celebrating 250 years of Beethoven's birth - Symphonies No.2 and No.3 performed in chamber music settings at the Eden-Tamir Music Center, Ein Kerem, Jerusalem

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
With 2020 commemorating the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth, concerts worldwide will be saluting the great composer born in Bonn, who lived and died in Vienna. To celebrate the legacy of the world’s most performed composer, the Eden-Tamir Music Center in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, is also running a Beethoven series. The first concert  - “Beethoven in Disguise” - took place on October 26th 2019. Artists taking part in the event were Matan Dagan (violin), Lotem Beider (viola), Yoni Gotlibovich (‘cello) and Dror Semmel (piano). 


The concert comprised chamber music arrangements of two Beethoven symphonies - Nos. 2 and 3. Possibly a new listening experience for most of the audience gathered at the Eden-Tamir Center, this phenomenon was by no means rare in the composer’s time. In fact, from the late Classical period and into the early 20th century, it was quite common for composers to arrange their own symphonic works for smaller ensembles. These arrangements, many for piano 4-hands, were primarily for domestic consumption; they resounded from the music rooms of private homes in the days before radio and recordings and where concerts were not accessible to all. Not all the Beethoven arrangements were necessarily transcribed by him and, in fact, not even necessarily by two of his most famous assistants and copyists - Czerny and Ries, although the latter two certainly did make arrangements of their teacher’s music. With house music all the rage, publishers often unscrupulously commissioned other musicians to arrange Beethoven symphonic works.  Arrangements were sometimes made illegally in other countries, and most of the time, without Beethoven's knowledge. However, not to be underestimated, this repertoire opens new perspectives not only on the arrangements themselves, but also as to contemporary attitudes towards these works.


Introducing the works, Dr. Dror Semmel spoke of Beethoven’s Symphony No.2 in D major Op.36 as having been composed at a time when the composer was in a bad state, both physically and emotionally. Depressed, almost deaf and unable to hide his increasing infirmity, Beethoven  wrote from Heiligenstadt in 1802…“yes that beloved hope - which I brought with me when I came here to be cured...I must wholly abandon; as the leaves of autumn fall and are withered, so hope has been blighted, almost as I came - I go away…” It was while working through this period of crisis that Beethoven completed Symphony No.2. Semmel notes that the D major Symphony, enigmatically, does not reflect the composer’s despondency; cheerful and outgoing, it even includes some humorous moments. The composer wrote his own trio arrangement of Symphony No.2 three years following the original symphonic setting. With much musical responsibility taken on by each of the players, Dagan, Gotlibovich and Semmel gave a dedicated performance of the work, drawing the listener into it via its slow, powerful, pensive introduction, moving into a full soundscape, their probing and play of motifs of the first movement’s development section arousing the listener’s curiosity. The Larghetto movement emerged lyrical but not insubstantial (for the piano trio setting, the composer had added the marking of “quasi andante” to keep it lively), the division of labour making for effective dialogue, its middle section minor-tinted and wistful. Also conversational was the compact, playful and sunny Beethoven-style Scherzo, its Trio a miniature performance with several “characters” on stage, this to be followed by the feisty, uninhibited, full canvas of the Allegro molto, its rhythmic play, small stops and surprises all presented with fine contrasting by the players. Beethoven's symphonies are painted on a huge canvas, and their scale is heroic. His contemporaries applauded his Second as a noteworthy piece full of power and depth, but they commonly referred to his music of that time as bizarre. In the piano trio setting, many of the tutti effects are created on the piano by fast "tremolo" of chords or arpeggios. Beethoven probably composed this symphony at the piano; he certainly played it on the piano when working out metronome markings.


As of Symphony No.3 in E flat major Op.55 “Eroica” Beethoven enters a new compositional phase, with the Eroica rightfully claiming its status as one of the great turning points in western music. One might be tempted to ask how reasonable it was to provide small-ensemble arrangements for something as large-scale and glorious as Beethoven's Eroica Symphony; for some listeners, the lesser orchestration and variety of orchestral colour could make for quite disconcerting listening.  Ferdinand Ries was, of course, well regarded in his time as a pianist (his public debut was in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.3) and also the distinguished composer of a large body of chamber music with and without piano. As it turns out, he did a superb job in keeping the spirit of the Eroica alive, rich and full in this highly reduced arrangement, his paring down of proportions carried out with impeccable compositional craftsmanship, skilfully dividing the roles among each of the four performers and actually clarifying some of the inner workings of the symphony, in particular, its contrapuntal writing. Here, his writing for piano is challenging and virtuosic, assigning it to take on the body of the original score, yet without relegating the strings into submissiveness. At the Ein Kerem concert, the artists created a convincingly full and well-defined timbral scene, the opening Allegro con brio’s melodious utterances emerging from intense sections, in playing that was both gripping and tender. The Marcia funebre, with Semmel establishing its natural and ceremonious pacing, was deeply felt as it moved from theme to beautifully-formed variations. Any notion of heroic- or tragic feeling was then swiftly whisked away by the Scherzo, the artists’ perky - at times lightweight, at others, demonic - reading of it, with its off-beat jokes and the Trio’s hunting-horn associations, all so convincing in the quartet scoring!  The artists' playing of the Finale gave expression to the breadth of Beethoven's original thoughts in its melange of intensity and lyricism, sealing the performance in a richly-coloured tour-de-force.


So, was the audience at the Eden-Tamir Music Center hearing Beethoven “in disguise” or not? Do these arrangements ask too much of the players or do they, in fact, give them freedom to read their own interpretations into the score more so than possible when playing under a conductor? Were we listening to orchestral music, to chamber music or, perhaps, to a third medium? The listener was left to grapple with these questions as the concert ended.



No comments: