Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Organic Variety at December’s First Friday


Namhee Han, First Fridays at First!–fff, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

Namhee Han.
‘Tis the season… and along with everything else, for South Bay chamber music enthusiasts it’s when organist Namhee Han usually—though not invariably—makes her annual appearance in Classical Crossroads’ First Fridays at First!–fff lunchtime series. As previously (see reviews here and here), her program was highly varied and entirely unhackneyed, and on this occasion enhanced for the first time by First Lutheran’s thoughtful provision of a video feed for the audience to appreciate her nimble fingers (and, on occasion, feet—see below!).

Apart from his organ music, the extensive oeuvre of Sigfrid Karg-Elert (1877-1933) is unknown outside his native Germany—what, one wonders, are his orchestral, chamber and vocal works like? That works list is in considerable disarray, with lots of empty opus numbers and a few others doubled up, which brings us to his Valse mignonne, Ms. Han’s first item. Nominally from Karg-Elert’s Op. 142, you won’t find it in his Sempre Semplice, 12 Easy Pieces for Organ, Op. 142. Look again, however, and there it is as one of the Drei stücke für Orgel, also Op.142

Sigfrid Karg-Elert.
Valse mignonne was pleasantly dreamy—as the title indicates, its mood is bitter-sweet and French-accented rather than Viennese gemütlich—and the (to my ears) tendency to monotony in the piece was effectively disguised by Ms. Han’s frequent and imaginative changes of registration.

If Karg-Elert’s output can be likened to a sizable land-mass, then that of Joseph Haydn is a veritable continent in extent, though of course far more familiar. One of the smallest regions in its comprehensive Hoboken map is Hob. XIX, the Werke für die Flötenuhr, 32 brief pieces composed between 1772 and 1793 for the musical clock—as Ms. Han explained, an invention that in former centuries inspired works from many composers.

17-pipe flute clock.
From an arrangement for organ by Desmond Ratcliffe of eight of them, she chose four of these Haydn miniatures. They were all over in as many minutes (slightly wrong-footing the audience), but she distinguished between them with subtle changes of registration, so that the chirpy No. 20 and No. 6 effectively and festively book-ended the more gentle and reflective Nos. 5 and 24.

Guy Bovet.
There was, however, nothing gentle and reflective about El Tango de Los Tangos, one of the Twelve Tangos Ecclesiasticos written in 2000 by the Swiss organist and composer Guy Bovet (b.1942). This was a fearsomely gruff tour-de-force for the pedals only, and a snappy repositioning of the video camera showed Ms. Han’s feet as agile as her fingers, producing a quite astonishing range of sonorities.

William Bolcom (b.1938).
William Bolcom, now aged 81, has throughout his career not merely accommodated but positively embraced a wide range of popular idioms in his works, from country to reggae, and often alongside the most uncompromising modernism (for all these and more, his mighty setting of the complete William Blake Songs of Innocence and of Experience is an experience to be savored!).

Ms Han has programmed Bolcom's music before in this series, and here she next moved to the piano stool for his 1970 Graceful Ghost Rag. This amiable piece dances wistfully with the shade of Scott Joplin, but on this occasion it could perhaps have swung a little more freely.

Then it was back to the organ console for the final item. The Victorian American composer Dudley Buck wrote his 10-minute Concert Variations on The Star Spangled Banner Op. 23 in 1868 at the age of 29, and in doing so entirely avoided the farcical irreverence that the even younger Charles Ives a couple of decades later brought to his variations on another patriotic tune, America.

After a straightforwardly spacious full statement of the Theme, Variation 1 introduces a running bass in the pedals, adding to the sense of motion though without any marked tempo change. This arrives emphatically with the Poco vivace Variation 2, where the theme moves to the bass beneath scampering triplets in the treble; the bold changes of texture continue in Variation 3, which is introduced by a torrential growl in the pedals only.

Much-needed respite from all the activity comes in the final Variation 4, a prayerful, minor-key Adagio in which Buck indulges in some gorgeous suspensions and unpredictable harmonic shifts, after which the composer begins his expansive finale with a Fughetta of Bachian certitude that grows into a final grand statement of that Star Spangled Banner.

Again one speculated about the other works of yet another neglected composer; after his death in 1909 Dudley Buck’s many cantatas and other vocal and orchestral works gathered dust that's still there. Meanwhile, needless to say, Ms. Han was absolutely on top of his fine organ showpiece, using the full resources of the instrument for contrasting textures and timbres, and culminating in a literally all-stops-out coda. The audience clearly loved the piece, perhaps appreciating in addition to Ms. Han’s artistry the work’s implicit affirmation of enduring values in these, ahem, troubled times.


“First Fridays at First! – fff”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, December 1, 2019. Images: Namhee Han: Patch; Karg-Elert: Karg-Elert-Gesellschaft eV; Musical clock: Matthias Naeschke; Guy Bovet: Composer website;  William Bolcom: Katryn Conlin; Dudley Buck: Period Paper.

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Thursday, November 28, 2019

The Other Long Beach Orchestra

Johannes Müller-Stosch with the Bob Cole Conservatory Symphony.

Bob Cole Conservatory Symphony, Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, Long Beach

You know all about the Long Beach Symphony from the insightful reviews posted here by David J Brown. But those who appreciate symphonic music and want to hear it played well should also be aware of the Bob Cole Conservatory Symphony, whose latest concert was at the Carpenter Center the other night.

Formerly the School of Music at California State University, Long Beach, the eponymous conservatory received a $16 million donation in 2008 from the estate of the Long Beach real estate investor Robert "Bob" Cole. The gift has enabled improved facilities and a renowned faculty, which has in turn led to the ability to attract the cream of the national crop of young instrumentalists, along with other good things.

Johannes Müller-Stosch.
There are a couple of reasons for this orchestra's excellence. An important one is a conductor who knows his stuff, a superb musician with a knack for training young players. That would be Johannes Müller-Stosch, who also leads the Orange County Youth Symphony and has a professional orchestra in Michigan. Then there's the talent and dedication of the players themselves. You hear the result in the skill of the solo winds, the firm tone of the brass, and the full, rich sound of the strings. Moreover, they play with a youthful energy that's infectious and a pleasure to witness.

Franz Schubert.
This varied program was not an easy one. Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759, ("Unfinished"), composed in 1822, is as introverted and classical as Erich Wolfgang Korngold's overture to The Sea Hawk is exuberant and Romantic. And then there's Petrushka. The second of the three big early ballet scores by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)—after The Firebird (1910) and before The Rite of Spring (1913)—is a challenge even for professional orchestras, and these kids hadn't played the work before; Müller-Stosch asked those who hadn't to stand, and it was everybody.

Igor Stravinsky by
Pablo Picasso (1920).
Petrushka is technically daunting and rhythmically complex, with kaleidoscopic shifts of mood and texture. The 1911 original version calls for a huge orchestra and multiple meter changes; a lot can go wrong. Here not much did, which is a tribute to the hard work of these gifted young musicians, and to Müller-Stosch's firm beat and command of the work's overall structure.

At first the playing seemed, perhaps understandably, careful and a bit tentative, but by the end things had become confident and vigorous. Along the way there was accomplished solo work from trumpet, flute, and piano, spot-on contributions from the percussion, impressive coordination between sections, and excellent execution by all concerned.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
Before there was John Williams there was Korngold (1897-1957); the latter's lush symphonic film scores were a model for those who followed. And if this was a test to see if these strings and this brass section could approximate the full, rich sound of a studio orchestra, and if Müller-Stosch's young charges could play the sweeping, lushly melodic themes from Michael Curtiz's 1940 swashbuckler with something approaching abandon, they passed with flying colors.

For the Schubert (1797-1828), Müller-Stosch had been replaced by graduate student David Scott, who led a tidy, expressive, and well-modulated performance, highlighted by some lovely wind playing, especially from the clarinet. There was much to admire in his tasteful interpretation, but I did have one quibble: Scott should have observed the first movement repeat, which I consider essential.

The Bob Cole Conservatory Symphony is not just an excellent student orchestra; it's an excellent orchestra, period. It deserves a larger, and broader, audience than the moms, dads, and fellow students who were in attendance here.


Bob Cole Conservatory Symphony, Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, Wednesday, November 16, 2019, 8 p.m.
Photos: Johannes Müller-Stosch and the Bob Cole Conservatory Symphony: daily49er.com.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

The Accursed Huntsman and Friends at Long Beach

"The German Huntsman", by Gustave Courbet.


Long Beach Symphony at the Terrace Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center

A “French Fantastique” program sans Berlioz? Sacré bleu! To be fair, Maestro Eckart Preu did include the Symphonie Fantastique in his very first concert with the LBSO—entirely of music by French composers—after he had been chosen as the orchestra’s new Music Director but before his first full season (reviewed here). And in any case, this time around he made clear that the “Frenchness” was to do with spirit and content, and didn’t necessarily imply 100% French authorship.

Looking before the event at the works listed, this did seem a rather heterogeneous collection of pieces, as well as perhaps a bit short-measure, but it’s time I learned to trust Maestro Preu’s program-building. Though both the opening items were slowish, extracts from larger wholes, and with strings-dominated textures, they were entirely different in expressive style and intent.

André Caplet (left) and Claude Debussy (right). 
In his introductory remarks Preu noted that Clair de lune—the only movement, it would seem, that Debussy’s friend André Caplet (1878-1925) orchestrated from the early piano Suite bergamasque L. 82—is not lushly “romantic,” as often presented, but rather cool, poised and unemotive, a perfectly distilled nocturnal impression.

His performance duly observed this, the tempo easing forward to befit the Andante marking, with playing as dolcissimo as you could desire from the LBSO strings, on stellar form for the whole evening. The balance between them, the double woodwind band, and the harp, was clear throughout, with every strand telling, and the piece’s two brief forte climaxes were powerful enough to remind one that there is some fiber behind the diaphanous textures.

Of the four composers represented (five if you include M. Caplet), Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) was the only one with no French blood, being of Austro-Hungarian extraction. Maestro Preu remained on the platform to continue with the Intermezzo from the opera Notre Dame (1904-06), this short item being, as he had remarked, the only piece by Schmidt that has “travelled” beyond his central European heartland.

Franz Schmidt as cellist, after an etching
of Anton Karlinsky (Wien Museum). 
Schmidt’s output is compact: relatively few but large-scale orchestral works including four symphonies; two operas; five large chamber works; a sizeable number of organ compositions plus a handful of other instrumental pieces; and one oratorio. For my money his Symphony No. 4 in C major stands particularly high in any array of major 20th-century symphonies, whilst the magnum opus of his final years, the oratorio Das Buch mit Sieben Segeln (The Book with Seven Seals), is simply one of the greatest choral/orchestral works of the last century, if not beyond.

It might have been an idea to preface the Intermezzo with the orchestral introduction that precedes it, as it’s quite brief, and its brilliant, ebullient textures would have added context to, and deepened the impact of, the radiant lushness of the Intermezzo. But as it was, the LBSO strings changed gear quite marvelously for the Intermezzo: gone were the floating, diaphanous textures of the Debussy, to be replaced by exactly the saturated richness that Schmidt’s passionately intense portrayal of Notre Dame’s doomed gypsy heroine Esmeralda demands, further enhanced by two harps and capped by a single cymbal-clash at the climax. The only regrettable thing was that, as Maestro Preu noted, it’s over all too soon and always feels as if there should be more of it.

César Franck, photographed by Pierre Petit.
The works-list of César Franck (1822-1890) is comparably compact and not dissimilar in content from that of Schmidt: large-scale chamber and orchestral works (one symphony this time), a couple of operas and plenty of organ music, but in his case far more choral/orchestral works plus some solo and choral songs.

Aside from the Symphony in D minor, formerly a concert staple but performed less frequently in recent years, Franck’s main orchestral achievement was his contribution to the Lisztian-model symphonic poem. To end the first half, Maestro Preu led the LBSO in an absolutely rip-roaring performance of Le Chasseur maudit (The Accursed Huntsman), composed in 1882.

With its sectional structure and much repetition of the principal motifs, a less-than-wholehearted performance can seem tiresomely repetitive, but this didn’t put a foot wrong, shaped and coherent as it was from the brazenly authoritative opening fanfares on the four horns, through the grandiose swing of the central section, to the huntsman’s final doomed pursuit via a terrific fff climax into the abyss by demons conjured up here as scarily as J. K. Rowling’s Dementors. As exciting an account as the classic recording by Charles Munch, this for me was the highlight of the concert.

In a curiously parallel but opposite motion, as the presence of Franck’s Symphony in D minor in concert programs has diminished over the last few decades, so performances of Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 in C minor Op. 78 have increased in number. I can remember when it was a real rarity, in England anyway, its worth passionately argued for by enthusiasts; now the battle is clearly won. The great popularity it has achieved is doubtless at least in part due to the spectacular concluding movement that has earned the nickname “Organ Symphony,” but there’s more to it than that.

Camille Saint-Saëns, c.1880.
While his first five symphonies are worth seeking out (there are two unnumbered ones from 1850 and 1859 as well as the official No. 1 in E-flat major (1853) and No. 2 in A minor (1859)), there’s no doubt that No. 3, written at the height of the prolific Saint-Saëns’ powers in 1886, far outstrips them. Thematically memorable from beginning to end, with a subcutaneous network of motivic and harmonic interconnections pulling together its original and economic deployment of symphonic form, the Third Symphony’s C-minor-to-major, darkness-to-light progress is as sure-footed as its Beethovenian model.

Saint-Saëns knits together the traditional four-movement symphonic layout in two pairs. For me, Maestro Preu’s tempi for both the Adagio opening and its Allegro moderato continuation were a little on the slow side, though the latter may have been to (successfully) aid clarity in the quietly chattering 16th-note progress that pervades so much of it.

On the other hand, this moderate basic tempo emphasized the continuity of the whole long first movement when it segued mid-way (via exquisitely sensitive touchings-in on flute, bassoon, horn and lower strings) into the Poco adagio that corresponds to the traditional slow movement. Here the (electronic) organ, pedals only, made its first appearance—impressively sonorous if a little “up-front,” inevitably, compared with the effect from the more usually distant pipes in a cathedral setting.

Having taken a bit of a back seat during the fanfaring and thundering of the Franck, the LBSO strings once more came to the fore and excelled themselves, delivering seamless legato playing as appropriately soft as in the Debussy, and as powerful as in the Schmidt. If only, as the movement came to its deeply peaceful end, it hadn’t been followed by joltingly inappropriate inter-movement applause...

Once again original, Saint-Saëns introduces a piano to delineate—beautifully clearly in the often cavernous Terrace Theater acoustic—the textures of the central “trio” section in the Allegro moderato first half, corresponding to the symphony’s “scherzo,” of the bipartite second movement. And then, after another immaculately controlled orchestral winding-down, the expert fingers of Jung-a-Lee let the organ rip.

Though everything happened as spectacularly as it should (does any symphonic finale teem with more bell-like celebration than this, without actually having any bells in the score?), it was just as notable for its quieter moments, with some radiantly pastoral woodwind caroling, not to mention the Carnival-of-the-Animals-like tumbling interplay of the now four hands on the piano keyboard.

All in all, the performance was a triumph, greeted with a deserved standing ovation, after which Maestro Preu and his fine orchestra even topped the fervor of the symphony’s finale with a swirling account of the “Can-Can” from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, trumpets and trombones on their feet belting out the hit tune with the audience enthusiastically clapping along.


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, November 16, 2019, 8 p.m.
Photos: The German Huntsman: WikiArt; Eckart Preu: Courtesy LBSO; Caplet and Debussy: Mail Online; Schmidt: FSO website; Franck: Wikimedia Commons; Saint-Saëns: Wikimedia Commons.

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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

A Beethovenian Special for Second Sunday

Steven Vanhauwaert, with Charles Dickerson and the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles. 


Steven Vanhauwaert/ICYOLA, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

Numerous recitals have shown Rolling Hills United Methodist Church to be a fine venue for chamber music, and with a platform that is large enough easily to accommodate a small-to-medium-sized orchestra, it was only a matter of time before its acoustic suitability for such larger forces was also tested.

Vienna's Theater an der Wien, location of the first
performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.3
on April 4, 1803, played by the composer himself.
So here—as the latest celebration of that upcoming 250th anniversary—was the answer: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor Op. 37, played by Steven Vanhauwaert, with the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles under its founder and Artistic Director, Charles Dickerson. This was very much a “family” occasion in fact, as Mr. Vanhauwaert also serves as Artistic Director of the whole “Second Sundays at Two” concert series, while Mr. Dickerson is the Director of Music at RHUMC.

The very opening answered the question of how an orchestra would sound in this space—bold, forward, resonant, though the piano dynamic with which Beethoven marks the start of his Allegro con brio seemed closer to mezzo-forte. Maestro Dickerson’s reading of that Allegro con brio was on the spacious side, but this only added to the sense of a bold journey bravely undertaken. The well-tuned, unanimous thrust of the ICYOLA strings was immediately impressive, despite the platform area limiting their strength to a modest 4-4-3-3-1.

Steven Vanhauwaert.
Beethoven’s only minor-key concerto was probably composed in 1802-03, placing it as a crucial milestone in his early maturity. Like its closest model, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor K. 491, the first movement has a double exposition, the first being purely orchestral. As this unfolded, the orchestra’s energetic observation of the many sforzandi with which it’s peppered enhanced the grandeur and dynamism with which Beethoven sets the scene for the soloist’s appearance.

The second, piano-led, exposition starts with a grand upward keyboard flourish, after which Mr. Vanhauwaert gave the main theme full emphatic value, with glittering exactness in the embellishments that Beethoven decorates its progress with. When the gentle second subject arrived, his observance both of the prescribed piano marking and the fact that the composer doesn’t ask for any expressive slowing was equally keen. Also noticeable was that his scrupulous observance of dynamics and pacing in the solo part seemed to communicate itself to the orchestra, who responded with nuanced playing that delighted the ear in many tutti and solo passages.

With the arrival of the remarkable Largo slow movement, the individual qualities of the woodwinds increasingly made themselves felt: invidious, perhaps to single out any one instance, but especially relishable was the sensitive exchange between solo flute and bassoon over Mr. Vanhauwaert’s delicately precise and fluid handling of the 32nd- and 64th-note runs with which the movement abounds.

Beethoven walking in the countryside: postcard reproduction of the painting by Julius Schmid
which hangs in the Beethoven-Haus, Bonn.

The piano alone opens both the slow movement and the finale, and his unflinching observance of the extremely slow marking for the former, and steady pace to introduce the Rondo allegro, effectively pushed the total duration of the concerto close to the 40-minute mark, but overall the performance never dragged, and in that Rondo finale everyone seemed to relish Beethoven’s ceaselessly inventive interplay between the orchestral tutti, wind/brass choir and solo flights, and the keyboard. And the steady pace for the movement’s main body enabled a really exciting acceleration into the headlong Presto conclusion.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.
Before the concerto, Mr. Vanhauwaert played, not a solo Beethoven piece as one might have expected, but C. P. E. Bach (1714-1788)—the first and last movements of his Sonata in A minor, Wq. 49/1, H. 30 ("Württemberg Sonata No. 1"), probably composed between 1742 and 1744. This was a highly imaginative and apposite choice, given (as Mr. Vanhauwaert remarked after the performance) that this second surviving son of the great Johann Sebastian was in his day far more celebrated than his father, and a highly influential composer in the transition between the Baroque and Classical styles.

The performance certainly bore out the quality of the music and the desirability of hearing far more of Carl Philipp Emanuel’s music. The opening Moderato had a poised, stately quality enhanced by observation of the repeat, while the trenchant and harmonically rich Allegro assai finale was, for this listener, all too brief. It was only regrettable that time constraints precluded the slightly uniform effect of the two movements in succession being relieved by the inclusion also of the central Andante. Another time, let’s hope.

There was time, however, for a brief encore to follow the Beethoven concerto, and Mr. Vanhauwaert obliged with a limpid, lingering account of Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (Of Foreign Lands and Peoples), Scene No. 1 from Schumann’s Kinderszenen Op. 15—which further delighted, if that were possible, the capacity audience.

Altogether, this was an achievement with which all concerned should be truly proud. Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto is promised from the same partnership next June as the 2019-2020 “Second Sundays at Two” season’s final concert. If it’s as finely performed as No. 3 was last Sunday, then it will be memorable indeed. 


Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Torrance, Sunday, October 13, 2019, 2.00 p.m.
Images: Artists: The author; Theater an der Wien: Wikimedia Commons; Steven Vanhauwaert: Artist's website; Beethoven: Beethoven-Haus, Bonn; C. P. E. Bach: Wikimedia Commons.

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Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Beethoven's youthful brilliance lights up First Friday

First Lutheran Church, with Eric Byers (inset left), and Robert Thies (inset right).


Robert Thies and Eric Byers, First Fridays at First!–fff, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

This is going to go on for a long time.

“This,” of course, is Beethoven’s even more pre-eminent presence than usual in concert programs, though the 250th anniversary of his birth is still over a year away. Just the previous weekend, for the South Bay Chamber Music Society the cellist Eric Byers performed the “Archduke” Trio with fellow members of the Hollywood Piano Trio (review), and here he was back again, together with pianist Robert Thies, at Classical Crossroads’ November “First Friday” lunchtime recital for the Cello Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Op. 5 No. 2.

Title-page from the first published edition
of Beethoven's Cello Sonatas Op. 5.
Introducing the performance, Mr. Byers noted that, as usual with such works from the cusp of the 18th and 19th centuries, this and Beethoven’s other cello sonatas were designated “for piano with accompaniment by a cello,” and this particular one certainly has a full and demanding piano part.

Nonetheless, the two Op. 5 sonatas—relatively youthful works composed (while the 25-year-old Beethoven was on a concert tour) in Berlin for the Duport brothers, Jean-Pierre and Jean-Louis, master cellists at the King of Prussia’s court—are now regarded as the first in which the cello, hitherto a continuo instrument, becomes the piano’s equal partner.

In terms of overall expressive approach, the instruments’ aural parity, and tempo relationships between movements, this was a notably mellifluous and well-balanced account of the Second Cello Sonata. Like its companion Op. 5 No. 1 in F major, it is nominally in two movements, the first with a slow introduction, but in Op. 5 No. 2 this introduction is so extended that it becomes virtually an independent movement; indeed some sources describe the sonata as being in three movements.

The cellist Jean-Pierre Duport (1741-
1818). Either he or his younger 
Jean-Louis (1749-1819) 
gave the first
performances of the 
Op. 5 sonatas,
with Beethoven at the keyboard
This long opening Adagio sostenuto ed espressivo section is dramatic and declamatory from the start, but both players avoided histrionics in the many sforzandi and other expression marks with which it is peppered, opting instead for an elegiac, forward-flowing manner that managed almost to maintain the sense of still being preparatory throughout its five long minutes.

When the transition finally comes it’s surely tongue-in-cheek, so long does Beethoven hesitate before he launches into the main Allegro molto più tosto presto. Mr. Byers and Mr. Thies took these hesitancies at face value, neither exaggerating nor downplaying, and by moving into that main part of the movement at a quite modest pace for such a precipitate marking they skillfully drew it together as a more convincing whole than usual.

Repeats? As well as the expected da capo for the exposition, Beethoven asks—uniquely amongst his cello sonatas—for the second half to be repeated as well, which if observed can push the whole first movement towards the 20-minute mark. Mr. Byers and Mr. Thies took neither repeat, which was appropriate in the context of their relaxed and genial approach thus far and the very extensive Rondo finale to come, and contributed to the sense of overall balance.

In this finale, Beethoven seems in such inexhaustible high spirits that he can barely get himself to the point when “enough is enough,” and the duo matched him all the way to the end, relishing the sheer joie de vivre and invention with which the movement abounds and navigating with quicksilver skill the many rhythmic subtleties and dislocations that might wrong-foot less expert players—an object lesson in how to keep a constantly and unpredictably moving ball in the air for 10 minutes and then catch it with all hands in the final measures.

As an encore, they played the Andante third movement from Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 19. I'm not a fan of extracting single movements from larger works conceived and meant to be heard as a whole. To me, this came across as a devotedly played and very lovely, but unmoored fragment, needing the whole sonata context to anchor and reveal its true depth and significance. However, its tranquility was a welcome contrast after all the Beethovenian pugnacity and bounce, and was greatly appreciated by the audience. 


“First Fridays at First! – fff”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, November 1, 2019.
Images: First Lutheran Church: Elaine Lim; Eric Byers and Robert Thies: Courtesy Classical Crossroads Inc.; Sonata title-page: IMSLP; Duport: British Museum.

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Thursday, October 31, 2019

The “Archduke” And Friends At The SBCMS

Composer and dedicatee of the "Archduke" Piano Trio.
left: Beethoven in 1815, painted by Joseph Willibrord Mähler;
right: Archduke Rudolf of Austria: portrait by Johann Baptist von Lampi the Elder.


Hollywood Piano Trio, South Bay Chamber Music Society, Los Angeles Harbor College

For the second time running, circumstances sent us to the SBCMS’s Los Angeles Harbor College performance on Friday night rather than the Sunday afternoon alternative in the Pacific Unitarian Church on top of the Palos Verdes Peninsula; and for all that venue’s light, spacious interior, not to mention the terrific views from the terrace outside, there’s no doubt that the College recital hall’s broad, shallow, tiered space, comfortable seating, and warm, analytical acoustic afford the more involving musical experience.

Roberto Cani.
From a fairly close seat, that acoustic served to differentiate rather than blend the timbres of the Hollywood Trio’s instruments, violinist Roberto Cani’s fluid, husky, rather veiled tone very distinct from the rock-solid underpinning of Eric Byers’ cello, and both set off by the crisp rhythmic impetus of the College Steinway under the fingers of pianist Inna Faliks.

All this gave Haydn’s Piano Trio No.39 in G major Hob.XV:25, composed in 1795, a somewhat different character from another performance given nearby earlier this year (reviewed here). Rather than the warm amiability evinced then, the Hollywood Trio launched the theme-and-variations first movement with an eager pointedness that rather belied its Andante marking. By contrast, they phrased the Poco adagio, cantabile, second movement with an amplitude that definitely glanced towards the romanticism to come in the next century’s early decades.

Eric Byers.
The finale of this oft-nicknamed “Gypsy” trio is headed Rondo a l’Ongarese. Kudos to program-note writer Boglárka Kiss, D.M.A., for taking the trouble to point out some differences between “gypsy” and “Hungarian” folk music, though I confess to not clearly discerning which of them Haydn echoes. The Hollywood Trio’s performance was close to the Presto marking, but in its sharp assertiveness lacked some of the rollicking foot-stamping quality which the gypsy/Hungarian interludes that punctuate repetitions of the rondo theme can comfortably take.

Inna Faliks.
Nonetheless, the inexhaustible inventiveness of Haydn in late middle age was demonstrated thoroughly—so now it would be good to hear some of his many other and less-often-played piano trios. The Russian Anton Arensky (1861-1906), by contrast, left only two works in the genre, and again, it would be nice if his rather Brahmsian Piano Trio No. 2, Op. 73 in F minor got as many live airings as the distinctively Tchaikovskian Piano Trio No. 1, Op. 32 in D minor from 1894, with which the Hollywood Piano Trio continued their recital.

Admittedly though, the latter does open with a killer main theme on the violin, which through its lengthy course swings between optimism and lament, aspiration and potential tragic fall. Mr. Cani expressed this with a restraint, even a passing hesitancy, that was strikingly contrasted when the cello took over, with Mr. Byers’ instrument projecting the melody with a full-throated, indeed Slavic, growl. Observation of the exposition repeat underlined the scale of this opening Allegro moderato movement, and the performance continued to gain breadth with a quite easy-going tempo for the Scherzo’s nominal Allegro molto.

Anton Arensky:
a portrait from 1901.
From sublime dueting between the muted cello and violin, the fulsomely romantic Elegia slow movement proceeded like the evocation of some moonlit lake, while the concisely tensile Finale, kicked off by an imperiously arresting handling of the opening flourish by Ms. Faliks, was duly navigated back in masterful fashion through echoes of its predecessor to the final haunting reappearance of the first movement main theme, before it—and the whole work—ground down to its emphatic but unsparingly bleak conclusion.

Beethoven’s Piano Trio No. 7 in B-flat major, Op. 97, composed in 1811 and dedicated, like several others of his works, to the Hapsburg scion Archduke Rudolf of Austria, was the last and largest of his contributions to the genre. It opens with one of his most spacious and memorable first subjects, but this the Hollywoods took with a welcome alacrity, more plain Allegro than Allegro moderato as marked, as if eager to get started on the long journey.

To my ears they seemed a little less emphatic in the (welcome) exposition repeat, as if settling in on that journey, and then the separating clarity of the LAHC hall acoustic and the improvisatory freedom of the Trio's playing made particularly relishable the harmonic and melodic twists and turns that Beethoven executes in the first movement’s development section—which seem at the same time exhilaratingly unexpected and immediately inevitable.

The Scherzo presents a conundrum for performers. Unlike most such movements in Classical sonata-form works, but in common with some of Beethoven’s other expansive “middle-period” pieces, it eschews the pattern of pairs of brief repeated sections for the Scherzo and Trio, followed by a da capo without repeats of the Scherzo. Instead a much more elaborate Scherzo, without literal repeats, leads straight into—at the same Allegro tempo—a long and weirdly subterranean Trio that slithers up from the depths in close-packed semi-tone steps before breaking out into a high-stepping march-like section.

The conundrum is that Beethoven marks one huge repeat of all this to be taken before moving into a coda, so that the whole movement has an ABABA+coda shape. This is rarely done as it extends the Scherzo to a length closely matching those of both its imposing predecessor and the radiant Andante cantabile ma però con moto that follows, and unsurprisingly the Hollywood Trio did not observe it. Given their fairly spacious account of the Scherzo, so that even without the big repeat it ran to eight minutes, this was probably the right decision, but… one day?

I felt that their performance of the great slow movement lacked a little of the hymn-like inevitability and “inward” quality that some of the finest accounts of it possess, but when it moved into the Finale—via a stroke of tonal side-stepping genius very similar to that with which Beethoven links the slow movement and finale of his “Emperor” concerto—their combination of powerful emphasis and observation of the Allegro moderato marking enabled a truly exultant acceleration into the final Presto that set the seal on a fine performance of one of the greatest piano trios in the repertoire. 


South Bay Chamber Music Society, Music Department Recital Hall, Los Angeles Harbor College, Wilmington, 8pm, Friday, October 25, 2019.
Photos: Beethoven: Wikimedia Commons; Archduke Rudolf: Wikimedia Commons; Roberto Cani: L’Italo-Americano; Eric Byers: Henceforth Records; Inna Faliks: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco; Arensky: Music Toronto.

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