On Sunday evening I went to Christ & St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street to hear a group with which I had previously been unfamiliar perform an all-Beethoven program. Calling itself "Music Among Friends," the ensemble consisted of three extremely talented musicians - violinist Jessica Fellows, cellist Ariana Nelson, and pianist Jerome Rosen. Ms. Fellows and Ms. Nelson both hold MM degrees from Juilliard while Mr. Rosen, a graduate of Curtis, is also a violinist and has regularly performed with several major orchestras.
The program opened with the Violin Sonata in D major, Op. 12, No. 1 (1798). Although as a performer Beethoven achieved fame for his pianism, he was also thoroughly conversant with the string instruments and in fact began his career as a violist with the Bonn court orchestra. More importantly, when he first arrived in Vienna he studied violin with Ignaz Schuppanzigh, one of the preeminent musicians of the day. (He also studied vocal composition with Antonio Salieri to whom the three Op. 12 sonatas are dedicated.) It may have been the association with Schuppanzigh that prompted Beethoven to write these early works in the hope the virtuoso might perform them in recital. Though they adhere closely to the three movement classical structure formulated by Haydn, they are at the same time innovative in the weight given the violin part. If the sonatas were not well received when first performed, it may have been because Beethoven was trying too hard and put too much effort into them. The first movement of the present piece contains three distinct themes, and such an abundance of material may have confused early listeners as much as the composer's penchant for exploring distantly related keys within the same movement.
The next work was the Cello Sonata No. 3 in A major, Op. 69 (1808). Written ten years after the Op. 12 sonatas, the Op. 69 was composed well into Beethoven's middle period at roughly the same time as the Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 and the Choral Fantasy. The composer was long past his apprenticeship to Haydn by this point and yet the sonata retains the classical three movement structure and is far more genial than the bulk of Beethoven's output during this period. The adagio cantabile that opens the final movement is among the loveliest passages Beethoven would compose. The work is revolutionary, however, in the importance given the cello itself. From the opening bars that are played by the cello without accompaniment, it is apparent that the instrument has come into its own with this work. Long relegated to the role of continuo in the Baroque era, the cello is here treated for the first time as a solo instrument.
After intermission, the recital concluded with Beethoven's Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 97 (1811) nicknamed the "Archduke" for its dedication to the composer's patron, Archduke Rudolph. This was the last and finest of Beethoven's piano trios and is almost symphonic in its breadth. Beyond that, its first performances were notable for having been the last occasions on which the composer appeared in public as a pianist. It's difficult to imagine how painful it must have been for Beethoven, who had once been the foremost virtuoso in Vienna, to have realized that his ability at the keyboard was irretrievably lost. Louis Spohr, who was present at the premiere, somewhat unkindly described the state in which Beethoven's encroaching deafness had left him:
"On account of his deafness there was scarcely anything left of the virtuosity of the artist which had formerly been so greatly admired. In forte passages the poor deaf man pounded on the keys until the strings jangled, and in piano he played so softly that whole groups of notes were omitted, so that the music was unintelligible unless one could look into the pianoforte part. I was deeply saddened at so hard a fate."
Though written toward the end of the composer's middle period, the trio already looked ahead to the masterpieces of the late period. This is most evident in the elaborate set of variations that make up the slow third movement. It sometimes seems Beethoven's entire career was determined by his deafness. Just as his despair at the loss of his hearing had marked the beginning of his middle period, so its advancement to the point he could no longer play the piano propelled him forward into his late period in which he appeared to have thought more in terms of pure music than of composing for individual instruments.
One of the great advantages to living on the Upper West Side is that on practically any night of the week one can literally wander into a church or other informal venue and hear performances of the highest quality. On this occasion the musicians displayed not only great expertise on their chosen instruments but also a deep understanding of Beethoven's oeuvre. It was an evening well spent.