Sunday, November 17, 2019

The Accursed Huntsman and Friends at Long Beach


"The German Huntsman", by Gustave Courbet.

REVIEW

Long Beach Symphony at the Terrace Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center
DAVID J BROWN

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.


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Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, September 28, 2018, 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. 

REVIEW

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

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. 

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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).

REVIEW

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

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 
brother
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. 

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“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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