Working within the forms perfected by Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven managed to say some things that, if they didn’t quite turn the world upside down, at least remain compelling to hear.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
“I maintain that Beethoven was actually not a musical revolutionary at all, never claimed to be, never intended to be. That was, however, his reputation from his own time to this.” So Beethoven scholar Jan Swafford told NPR’s Tom Huizinga in an interview in 2014. It’s, perhaps, a jarring way to think about the composer whom even the egomaniacal Richard Wagner ranked next to God and Mozart. But this weekend’s concert by members of the Handel & Haydn Society (H&H), built around the marvelous Septet in E-flat major, emphasized the non-revolutionary Beethoven and, in so doing, laid bare the traditional roots of this most consequential of Western composers.
Of course, that’s not to say that this early music of Beethoven’s isn’t dynamic and dramatic. It is – or, at least, it should be. The String Trio in C minor (op. 9, no. 3), which opened Sunday’s concert at Sanders Theater, certainly explores some dark territory: the score is filled with numerous dynamic swells to go along with copious helpings of pianissimos, fortissimos, and sforzandis, often in close proximity to one another. Working within the forms perfected by Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven managed to say some things that, if they didn’t quite turn the world upside down, at least remain compelling to hear.
Sunday’s performance of its outer movements, though, tended to emphasize the music’s elegance rather than its affective turbulence. It was neat, fairly orderly, and, at least to start, sounded a bit small for the space. The ensemble of violinist Aisslinn Nosky, violist Jenny Stirling, and cellist Guy Fishman certainly seemed to be playing vigorously enough and their tempos weren’t lacking, but their collective interpretation of the Trio was often more refined than not and, in the end, that had the effect of robbing the music of some of its emotional tension.
The middle movements came across the best. In the second, Nosky led the way, dispatching her florid runs with sustained tone and bright color. The central section of the scherzo – marked by a series of rising canonic figures – also made a warm impression, proving, in the hands of these players, a forceful contrast to the grim, driving rhythms of the movement’s outer portions.
An expanded ensemble’s performance of the Septet, though, was more characterful. It also better filled the hall: Sanders is a bit big for three gut-strung strings, after all. Written for clarinet, bassoon, horn, and strings in 1799, the Septet offers a rare glimpse of Beethoven: one of him happy and, more or less, on top of the world. Its serious moments – the substantial second movement and the funeral march-like introduction to the finale – are more reflective than melancholy and much of the rest of the piece is charged with joy.
That latter characteristic was abundantly present in the H&H group’s accounts of the fast sections of the outer movements and the score’s two dances. The ensemble (augmented by Eric Hoeprich, clarinet; Andrew Schwartz, bassoon; Todd Williams, horn; and Anthony Manzo, double bass) made the most of latter duo’s high spirits, delivering a lilting account of the minuet and a playful reading of the droll scherzo. And the closing Presto was downright rollicking, with Hoeprich and Schwartz tossing their cheerful figures off with uniform articulation and lively rhythm. Nosky was equally group leader and partner in the hijinks, executing the vigorous writing of her part with verve and aplomb.
The slow second movement, which is not dissimilar in many respects to the corresponding section of the C-minor Trio, was songful and finely-textured, while the variations movement was suffused with energy and charm, the increasingly-playful progression of its five sections charged with humor. That it – like the first movement of the Trio – prompted a spontaneous flurry of applause at its conclusion was more than appropriate: this music is designed to provoke a response from its audience and, more than two centuries on, the Septet seems to have aged very well.
So, in fact, has the middle piece on the program, Mozart’s Violin Sonata in B-flat major (K. 378), heard on Sunday in a crafty 1799 arrangement for clarinet and string trio. It’s in fact a brilliant reworking of the original – truly more of a recomposition than anything else – that fully engages each member of the ensemble and loses none of the brilliance and magic of Mozart’s original.
Clarinetist Hoeprich and violinist Nosky entwined their melodic lines with grace and clarity, delivering a particularly compelling account of the slow middle movement, honey-toned and lyrical. The outer movements bustled agreeably, especially the closing Rondo with its engaging interplay of wit and invention.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.