Yesterday evening the Jupiter Players gave the last of their three summertime recitals at Christ & St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street. The program was appropriately lighthearted, in keeping with the season, and featured works by Beethoven and Dvořák which, while not among these two composers' best known pieces, were still highly significant chamber works in their own right and extremely enjoyable to hear.
The program opened with Beethoven's Six Ländler, WoO15 (1802). As the date of composition would indicate, these short German dances were written at the very end of the composer's early period at about the same time he completed his Second Symphony. And these dances do share several common features with the symphony, most notably their use of D major (actually D minor for the fourth dance) as the home key. Their lively festive character is, however, quite different from that of the symphony. The occasion for which they were written was the annual winter dance at Vienna's Hofburg Palace. This was a major social event in the capital's music season, and in fact several hundred balls are still held annually in Vienna at this time of year. This would, though, be the last time Beethoven would take part in the celebrations. For one thing, he had successfully established himself as a composer to such an extent that he had no need to further embellish his reputation on such public occasions. More importantly, such lightweight pieces no longer held any interest for Beethoven as, tortured by advancing deafness, he moved inexorably toward the great works of his middle period. In spite of this, the dances are very accomplished examples of their genre and the Viennese revelers must have found them quite pleasing. The very fact that the composer took the trouble to later transcribe them for piano shows that he held them in fairly high esteem even if he did not deem them worthy of being assigned an opus number.
The next work was an arrangement by Wenzel Matiegka of Beethoven's Serenade in D major, Op. 8 (1795-1797). While the original work was scored for violin, viola and cello, it was here rearranged for the unusual combination of violin, viola and guitar. By the time he wrote this work, Beethoven had already approached the string trio form in his Op. 3 in E-flat and would return to it immediately after in the three works that comprise his Op. 9. Even more importantly, he had made the acquaintance of the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, whose ensembles would go on to premiere the great quartets of the late period; and the presence of so accomplished a musician may have been one factor that led Beethoven to experiment with the string trio form in the first place. It's interesting to note that even at this early point Beethoven, who began his career as a violist with the Bonn court orchestra, was comfortable expressing his musical ideas for strings alone. That's not to say, though, that the Op. 8 is in any sense a profound work. It's actually a relaxed divertimento of the type routinely performed at Vienna's myriad social events, although the particular occasion for which this serenade was composed is not known. As guitartist Jordan Dobson noted before beginning the piece, Matiegka's transcription of this work involved much more than a simple transcription of the cello part. At some points the guitar, which has inherently a much softer sound than that of its companions, would, simply in order to make itself better heard, take over parts originally intended for the violin and viola, leaving those instruments to sit silent. The result was pleasing enough, especially for so carefree a piece of music as this, but in general I much prefer to hear works in the arrangements for which they were originally scored.
After intermission, the recital concluded with a performance of Dvořák's String Quintet No. 2 in G major, Op. 77 (1875), known as the "Double Bass" for its distinctive instrumentation in which a bass was added to the traditional string quartet in order to achieve a more pronounced sonority in the lower register. Despite its deceptively high opus number (it was originally published as the Op. 18), the quintet is a relatively early work composed before Dvořák had come to the attention of Brahms and Hanslick in 1877 and then launched on an international career. Originally written as a submission to a local competition, which it easily won, the piece went unperformed for a number of years until Dvořák, whose work was by then highly popular, finally sent it to his publisher Simrock. As such, the quintet provides an excellent demonstration of the composer's early style as he moved away from the influence of Wagner's music and found his own voice. Considering how early in Dvořák's career it was written, it's a remarkably cohesive work and one that deserves a more prominent place in the chamber repertoire. The present performance was notable for its inclusion of the slow intemezzo movement that Dvořák had originally removed from fear the work would be too long and later adapted as his Nocturne for Strings, Op. 40.
As is always the case with this ensemble, the the level of musicianship was superb throughout the recital. The playing of guest violinist Danbi Um was particularly noteworthy.