Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Jupiter Players Perform Hoffmeister, Spohr and Beethoven

In addition to the twenty recitals the Jupiter Players perform during the regular season, the company also schedules three recitals during the summer months at Christ & St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street.  Yesterday evening, I attended the second of these and heard a program that featured major works by Franz Anton Hoffmeister, Louis Spohr and Beethoven, all of them composed within a few years of one another in early nineteenth century Vienna.

The recital opened with Hoffmeister's Notturno No. 4 in D major (1802) for flute, two horns, violin, viola and cello.  Hoffmeister was actually a prolific and well respected Viennese composer at the turn of the nineteenth century, but he is remembered today primarily for his activity as a music publisher.  In this capacity he oversaw the publication of important works by, among others, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.  He was also personal friends with many of these illustrious composers and was in fact the dedicatee of Mozart's String Quartet in D major, K. 499.  In his own compositions, Hoffmeister wrote most often for the flute, including twenty-five concertos for that instrument.  And the flute did indeed feature prominently in the present piece.  The work turned out to be a gracious Classical divertimento that was thoroughly engaging and an excellent opening for the program.

The next work was Spohr's String Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 33, No. 1 (1814).  This piece, which like Mozart's quintets featured a string quartet with an additional viola, was actually the second of the two Op. 33 quintets to have been written and was put first only by a publisher's mistake. Like Hoffmeister, Spohr was a prolific composer who was highly regarded, at least in German speaking countries, during his lifetime but who has subsequently fallen out of fashion despite the fact that a number of critics consider him an important bridge between the Classical and Romantic eras.  He was also a virtuoso violinist and, as a student of Franz Eck, one of the last links to the legendary Mannheim School.  As a friend and associate of Beethoven, he worked with the master on the composition of the famous "Ghost" Trio.  In spite of these impressive credentials, Spohr's ability as a composer was limited and his work rarely if ever rose to the level of greatness.  The quintet peformed yesterday evening may have properly followed all the rules of Classical composition, but it was in the end a lifeless affair that  made no great impression on the audience.  It was only the second movement larghetto that provided a few moments of interest.

After intermission, the program closed with Beethoven's String Quartet No. 8 in E minor, Op. 59, No. 2 (1808), the second of the "Razumovsky" quartets.  This was the piece I had really come to hear.  The set of three quartets that make up the Op. 59 were the first to be written during the composer's middle period.  As such, they marked an enormous advance over the six quartets of the Op. 18, Beethoven's only previous attempt in this genre, that had been carefully modeled on those of Haydn and Mozart and could in a sense be considered "student" works.  In contrast, the innovations Beethoven employed in all three Op. 59 quartets were revolutionary for their time and to an extent anticipate the daring departures of the late quartets.  At least part of this new found originality can be attributed to the fact that they were written to be performed by a top notch ensemble.  Only a few years before, the virtuoso violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh had formed his own professional quartet ensemble, the first of its kind, whose intent was to give public recitals rather than private performances in the drawing rooms of wealthy patrons.  In addition, Count Razumovsky, the dedicatee of all three quartets, was himself an accomplished second violinist.

The No. 2 is the only one of the three quartets to be set in a minor key.  As one would expect from this, it is much more dramatic than its companions and at times contains an element of foreboding, most especially in the opening movement.  According to Carl Czerrny, Beethoven found his inspiration for the slow second movement in his contemplation of a starry nighttime sky.  Be that as it may, this adagio, based around an almost hymn-like melody, is one of the composer's finest and offers the listener a sense of relief after the ambiguity of the first movement.  It's spaciousness contrasts sharply with the two movements that follow.  It is in the third movment that Beethoven introduces the Russian theme he had promised his patron.  But Beethoven seems almost to be parodying the well known Russian song as he plays it off against textbook contrapuntalism.  The final movement is almost symphonic in breadth and ends in sprightly fashion on an upbeat note.

The performances yesterday evening, including that of guest artist violinist Stefan Milenkovich, were all equally impressive, most especially on the difficult Beethoven quartet.

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