Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Jupiter Players Perform Reicha, Beethoven, Schumann and Franck

I've been so busy the past few months that I haven't been able to attend nearly as many performances by the Jupiter Players as I would have liked.  That's a shame because this is really a first class ensemble even if the programs offered are often somewhat obscure.  That given on Monday afternoon at Good Shepherd Church, however, consisted of works by relatively well known composers - Anton Reicha, BeethovenSchumann and César Franck - though two of the pieces were youthful attempts written at the very beginning of their respective composers' careers and a third was a transcription of a work far more familiar in its original form.

If one wishes to become better acquainted with Beethoven's early works there's no better place to start than the Piano Quartet in C Major, WoO 36, No. 3 (1785).  Written when Beethoven was only 15 years old, the three quartets that make up WoO 36 - the only examples of this genre Beethoven ever composed (the Op. 16b is an arrangement of a quartet written for piano and winds) - provide a fascinating glimpse into the manner in which Beethoven first set about becoming a composer.  All three quartets were inspired by Mozart violin sonatas, the C major by the K. 296, and Beethoven made free use of the ideas contained within them, including their use of a three movement structure.  Passages from the C major were in turn reworked ten years later, Ferdinand Ries's protestations to the contrary, and then inserted into the Op. 2 piano sonatas.  Still, one has to bear in mind that the C major is really only a student work.  At the time Beethoven wrote the quartet he was at the very beginning of his career and the piece's primary value is the insight it affords the listener regarding the direction this precocious teenager would pursue in his later work.

The piece that followed, Reicha's 18 variationen und fantaisie on "Se vuol ballare" from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, Op. 51 (1804) for flute, violin and cello, was a very enjoyable work to hear.  At the time he wrote it, Reicha was still a struggling composer attempting to find success in Vienna where he became a close friend of Beethoven.  Anticipating his later career as an instructor at the Paris Conservatory, Reicha had completed during this period two major musical works, one on a new method of composing fugues, incorporating within it the use of polyrhythm, and another on the art of variations from which the present work was derived.  In it, Reicha had an opportunity to further develop the ideas he had advanced in L'Art de varier without becoming overly pedantic.  Whatever its pedagogical purpose, the trio was more mellifluous than much of Reicha's music, though that may have been largely due to the beauty of the aria that formed its source material.

The next work was Schumann's famous Kinderszenen ("Scenes of Childhood"), Op. 15 (1838), here transcribed for string quartet by Benjamin Godard, a French composer active in the second half of the nineteenth century.  I had only last month attended a performance at Juilliard where I heard the music in its original form for solo piano.  In my post describing that performance I had noted that a distinguishing feature of Schumann's piano music was its programmatic content.  His evocation of childhood might also indicate, I felt, a retreat from the problems of his present life to a more idyllic time and thus represent an early symptom of the mental breakdown that was to occur sixteen years later.  In any event, the thirteen short movements that make up the piece are as sensitive a description of childhood as one could wish.

At the time Godard completed the transcription there was a very good reason for his having done so.  In the days before radio and phonograph recordings, musical pieces were often arranged for other instruments so that they could be played at home or in informal gatherings by amateur musicians and thus, not incidentally, increase the publisher's sales figures.  This transcription is largely successful in capturing the beauty of Schumann's music and it was certainly expertly performed at this recital; nevertheless, I still strongly prefer hearing the piece in its original form for solo piano which was, after all, how Schumann intended it to be played.

After intermission, the program closed with Franck's Piano Trio in F-sharp minor, Op. 1. No. 1 (1840).  Franck was only age 18 and still a student at the Paris Conservatory when he started on this work and his lack of experience as a composer is evident throughout.  The work is to a large extent a by the book, academic exercise written in the heavy handed style one would expect of a fledgling composer.  There's a paucity of musical ideas; themes are repeated over and over, one feels, because Franck was unable to come up with any new ones.  Not surprisingly, the criticisms most often leveled against it are "plodding" and "monotonous"; these, however, do not take into account the lyricism that is present throughout the piece and that would characterize Franck's later music.

Franck has never been one of my favorite composers - like many French artists, he routinely produced work that often seems a triumph of style over substance - but this was actually the second time I'd heard his music within a month.  In February, I was at a Juilliard recital when the same pianist, Drew Petersen, performed the keyboard part on the scandalous Quintet.  That was a much more polished work than this but utterly lacking in emotional discipline.  Still, it was interesting to compare the the two works written almost forty years apart to better understand how Franck's style evolved over the years.

After not having attended any Jupiter recitals for some time, I was reminded on Monday afternoon what a fine group of musicians this is.  Of the regular company, flutist Barry Crawford stood out during the performance of the Reicha trio while violinist Lisa Shihoten and cellist David Requiro were excellent on strings in all the pieces on which they played.  The two guest artists, violinist Francisco Fullana and pianist Drew Petersen, were both superb musicians one would normally expect to encounter only in much larger and prestigious venues.

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