On Monday afternoon I went to hear the Jupiter Players give another of their chamber recitals at St. Stephen's Church on West 65th Street. On this occasion the program featured the works of Beethoven, Glière and Rimsky-Korsakov.
The recital began with an early work by Beethoven, the Twelve Variations on a Russian Dance in A major, WoO 71 (1796-1797) for solo piano. When Beethoven first arrived in Vienna he tried to build his reputation and audience by performing at his recitals variations on popular tunes, sometimes working extemporaneously after having encouraged the audience to call out requests. He never held these pieces in high enough esteem to assign opus numbers to them, but he did have them published whenever there was an opportunity to make money from them. The present theme and variations, dedicated to Countess Anna Margarete von Browne. wife of one of Beethoven's most important early patrons, is just such a work. The theme was taken from a ballet entitled Das Waldmädchen ("The Forest Maiden"), authored by Paul Wranitzky, that had just completed a successful run at Vienna's Kärntnertor Theater. Wranitzky was a significant composer - his 1789 opera Oberon was the inspiration for Mozart's Die Zauberflöte - but the thème russe chosen by Beethoven was actually written by the violinist Giovanni Giornovichi (a/k/a Ivan Mane Jarnović) who no doubt heard it during the three years he spent in St. Petersburg in the employ of Catherine the Great. The theme is pleasant enough if rather short, only five measures in length, and the variations Beethoven composed on it are attractive; but this is only a playful minor work that displays little of the composer's genius. It was given an excellent performance at this recital by guest artist Michael Brown.
After the Beethoven came a brief piece by Reinhold Glière, his Impromptu Op. 35 No. 9 (1908) for bassoon and piano. Of German-Polish descent, Glière is best known as the teacher of Sergei Prokofiev but he was also a prolific composer who emphasized Russian nationalism in his music and thus survived the Stalinist purges without incident. To me, the piano and bassoon made strange bedfellows, but guest artist Frank Morelli carried off the bassoon part very well.
The next work was Rimsky-Korsakov's Quintet in B flat major (1876) for piano, flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon. The piece was written as a competition submission but failed to win. Perhaps the best description of the work is that given by the composer in his 1909 autobiography, Chronicle of My Musical Life:
"The First Movement, Allegro con brio, in the classical style of Beethoven. The Second Movement, Andante, contained a good fugato for the wind instruments with a very free accompaniment in the piano. In the finale, Allegretto vivace, I wrote in rondo form. Of interest is the middle section where I wrote cadenzas for the flute, the clarinet and the horn to be played in turns. Each was in the character of the instrument and each was interrupted by the bassoon entering by octave leaps."
To me, the work was something of a hybrid. As Rimsky-Korsakov noted, the first movement was in the Classical tradition, a very unusual choice for this composer, while the second movement was filled with the spirit of Russian nationalism.
After intermission, the program concluded with a performance of another work for winds - flute, E-flat clarinet, two B-flat clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, trumpet, bass trombone, and serpent (this last a keyed brass instrument whose name derives from its strange curvilinear shape) . Entitled Grand Serenade, this piece was actually a transcription by Bernhard Crusell, a highly regarded Finnish composer, of Beethoven’s famous Septet in E-flat major, Op. 20 (1799). The Septet, based in turn on Mozart's string trio, K. 563 in the same key, was during the composer's lifetime easily the most popular of his works, so much so that in later years he begrudged it this position because he felt it drew attention from the much greater works of the middle and late periods. Its six movements are certainly pleasant to hear, but at bottom the piece is really no more than a divertimento, a lighthearted air that here worked perfectly as a serenade.