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Butler University launches a survey, under many hands, of the Beethoven piano sonatas in toto

In a live stream Sunday night from the Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall on campus, Butler University got its survey of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas under way

"Beethoven @Butler"  has some market zing in these troubled times because of the title's fortuitous alliteration of school and composer, whose 250th birth anniversary is taking a place in a year that can't end too soon for many of us. It's gratifying to herald this series as among the few local new presentations of classical music, pinned to a significant historical milestone, under an official aegis during the pandemic.

Here's a response to Sept. 13's performances that, despite some reservations, I intend to be an encouragement to anyone who reads this blog to virtually attend the rest of the series.

In the first flush of his boom times in Vienna, where the young German had relocated from his hometown Bonn, Beethoven's early piano sonatas came in a relative rush. The "Waldstein" Sonata, which capped the Sept. 13 program, was written only eight years after the titan's genre debut with three Opus 2 sonatas (No. 1 in F minor and No. 2 in A were featured on the series premiere). Professor Kate Boyd pointed out that amazingly brief span in her introduction. 

Robert Satterlee's performance of the F minor sonata was sober-sided and minimally inflected. It was largely true to any concept that one readily forms of a youthful work, but I thought an interpretation of more distinct character was needed. There were a few glitches and wrong notes, which made a considerable difference only in a blurred rush at the very end, which Eric Blom deftly described as "a few bars of brilliant triplet arpeggios tacked onto [the recapitulation] as a coda." 

Wrong notes were also sadly an occasional feature of Kent Cook's more idiomatic interpretation of the A major sonata — though not enough to throw the performance off track. The Scherzo and Trio came off best. 

After two performances with such finger faults, I began to wonder if pandemic-mandated masking might be to blame; I've noticed myself that peripheral vision, which I had always thought of as registering to either side, also is in play at the top and bottom of the periphery. Looking down may thus not be quite as instantly accurate when your nose and mouth are covered and cloth high up on your cheeks.  I'm guessing that knowing a piece thoroughly is no guarantee that a slightly obstructed view of the keyboard will not play hob with precision.

That's my supposition, at any rate, though my inability  to notice it at all marring Shuai Wang's performance of Op. 53 in C major (the "Waldstein") forces me to wonder if masks are an inevitable obstacle that musicians must learn to live with over time. But her performance moved well past the effortful onto the plane of the heroic sublime. That is the "Waldstein"'s home terrain — an "Eroica" for solo piano.  The work's expressive exuberance in the outer movements sometimes yields performances that suggest "I'm keeping up with Beethoven as best I can here — you gotta admire the effort."

I had no such sardonic thought in listening to Ms. Wang. There was sufficiently bright contrast in dynamic levels when called for, even at headlong pace. The effect of surprise was maintained; accents and articulation were unfailingly crisp. The tension imparted to the glissando passage just before a sustained trill announces the peroration of the finale was spine-tingling. Triumph was unblemished throughout.

The whole performance whetted the appetite for revisiting the series and taking in how a host of pianists will make their mark in this repertoire.



Dover Quartet launches its contribution to the interrupted Beethoven celebrations with 2-disc set of op. 18

Some well-seasoned music lovers have expressed something like relief at one silver-lining  development

out of the Covid-19 disaster: we were spared an excess of an already overprogrammed master composer.

Yes, you've surely noticed that the pandemic has wiped out special celebrations of Ludwig van Beethoven on the 250th anniversary of his birth. Anniversary-prone symphony orchestras in particular had this thematic element obliterated from their schedules, along with everything else they had planned. 

I, for one, have regretted not getting a chance to attend a "Missa Solemnis" performance in June, which would have been among the twlight landmarks of Krysztof Urbanski's tenure as music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

Recordings, especially of chamber music, can be dropped into the market no matter what, of course.  And among the benefits during these pinched timesis putting on disc contemporary interpretations of the sixteen Beethoven string quartets. Pentatone released an eight-disc set of them all with the Miro Quartet, and I reviewed it here just as the current year began without looking as dismal as it has become.

Now the Dover Quartet has entered the lists of a planned full cycle with Beethoven's calling card in the rapidly evolving genre of the string quartet: Opus 18. The Dover's mastery in these six quartets shows itself in its commitment to a young composer's bold way of making his mark on a form and a style he had inherited from Mozart, Haydn and lesser luminaries. The music is rich in personality and mastery of form as played by Joel Link, Bryan Lee, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, and Camden Shaw.

Notable is the pathos that this ensemble finds sometimes even in music of headlong energy. Tempos are generally on the fast side, but quite well-judged and flexible. Slow movements are not slighted in the achievement: In the Adagio of Quartet No. 1 in F major, tempo shifts give the music almost an "ad lib" feel at times. This suits the succession of tragic surprises of the young lovers in the tomb scene of "Romeo and Juliet," which Beethoven said he had in mind while composing the movement.

Spontaneity can be felt just below the surface of well-coordinated interpretations. For emphasis and to add a note of suspense about what's to come, the Dover sometimes slackens the pace judiciously. The practice may not follow directions in the score, but occurrences fall well within responsible interpretive boundaries.

When the outline of the music allows light to shine on a Haydnesque texture, the Dover keeps those lines vivid.  The less genial side of the emergent genius is given a patrician cast that manages to avoid glossing over it. Crucial changes of direction in the finale ("La Malinconia") of No. 6 in B-flat major are delicately, yet firmly, handled. Beethoven's characteristic "sforzando" outbursts have the right stunning effect, but without roughness, as in the assertive first movement of No. 4 in C minor.

The sound is satin-smooth, and the recording quality preserves a blooming resonance of the sort that might well be heard in a first-class concert hall. There is real space around it, neither too dry nor too glossy. But best of all are the many indelible indications that the Dover Quartet has fresh insights for our time into a body of work that a certain musical newcomer to Vienna first confronted the public with 22 decades ago.



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