Now that Juilliard is entering the second half of the spring term, its Sunday afternoon chamber music recitals at Morse Hall have once again resumed. That which I attended this past weekend featured major works by Handel, Mendelssohn and Beethoven.
The program opened with a Handel Trio Sonata in G minor, HWV 393 originally for two violins and continuo but here performed by two basses (Szu Ting Chen and Nicholas Kleinman) and piano (Jiaying Ding) under the coaching of Eugene Levinson. The unusual instrumentation of all lower register instruments created a much different sound than that I've come to associate with the trio sonatas I've heard performed by the Juilliard415. In those recitals, played on period instruments, there are normally two higher register instruments, e.g., violins, plus harpsichord and cello as continuo.
It was only after the performance that I learned there is a question as to the authenticity of this Handel work. According to the Wikipedia article on trio sonatas:
"The attribution to Handel of a set of trios for two oboes and continuo is false, and the authenticity of the three trios HWV 393, 394, and 395 is doubtful or uncertain."
There is no similar comment, however, on the IMSLP website which assigns to the work a composition date circa 1719 and a first publication date of 1733. Handel would then have been living in London and at the peak of his fame. It's entirely possible others' works were attributed to him by unscrupulous publishers seeking to increase sales.
The next work on the program was Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13 (1827) performed by Hannah Tarley and Yeri Roh, violins, Erica Gailing, viola, Kevin Mills, cello, and coached by Sylvia Rosenberg. It's no coincidence that this piece was composed in the same year as Beethoven's Op. 131. Though Beethoven's late quartets had not yet come to be appreciated as the masterpieces they were, and for that matter would not be for many years to come, Mendelssohn was already able, at only age 18, to discern the greatness within them. He studied the scores and then implemented a number of elements from them, including their cyclic structure, in this his first quartet (the Quartet No. 1 in E flat major was actually written two years later though published first). It is surprising then that Mendelssohn's work, a conscious tribute to a beloved master, sounds so utterly different from anything Beethoven himself ever composed. Instead, the Quartet No. 2 is one of the most lyrical pieces ever written, an expression of passionate longing that perfectly typifies the Romantic temperament. One has to remember that Mendelssohn, however precocious a craftsman he may have been, was at the same time still a teenager. It's obvious listening to the work that he was in love at the time he wrote it. Whether this was an actual full blown love affair or a momentary infatuation is beside the point. The work, which incorporates in its score the title of his song Ist es wahr?, is thoroughly sentimental in character and it is really this that makes it so appealing to listeners today. It represents one of those rare occasions when Mendelssohn put aside his carefully cultivated genteel persona and allowed his audience a glimpse of the individual who stood behind it.
After a ten minute intermission, the program concluded with Beethoven's String Quartet No. 7 in F major, Op. 59, No. 1 (1808). The musicians were Strauss Shi and Manami Mizumoto, violins, Meagan Turner, viola, and Keith Williams, cello; the coach was violinist Daniel Phillips of the Orion Quartet. Although the instrument with which Beethoven is most often associated is the piano, he was also a competent string player. His first position, in fact, had been as a violist with the Bonn court orchestra. Bearing this in mind, one can argue that Beethoven's most profound musical works, those in which he sounded the depths of the human spirit, were not the piano sonatas nor even the symphonies but rather his string quartets. I've always felt, for example, that the greatest work of the early period was the Op. 18, No. 6 with the La Malinconia section in the final movement. It was here that Beethoven first attempted to sublimate the despair he felt at his approaching deafness and thus anticipated the great masterpieces of the middle period. Several years passed before the composer again returned to the string quartet genre in the present piece, the first of the "Razumovsky Quartets," and it's at once apparent that a vast transformation has taken place in Beethoven's mastery of the form. While the Op. 18 quartets were written very much in the shadow of both Haydn and Mozart, those of the Op. 59 are the works of a master fully confident in his own powers and owing nothing to anyone. Together with the Op. 74 written a year later, the Razumovsky Quartets prepare the way for the late quartets. But they are also exceptionally important in their own right and together constitute some of the greatest works of the chamber repertoire.
The innovations Beethoven was to bring to the string quartet form are immediately apparent in the first movement of the Quartet No. 7. It begins with the first theme played by the cello alone and progresses almost randomly through several bars before finally arriving at the home key of F major. The theme is then handed from one instrument to the next, to be taken apart and examined before suddenly reappearing whole once again. But there is no repeat of the exposition, as one would normally expect, but instead a further development of the material that culminates in a double fugue. In the second movement scherzo, Beethoven continues to dazzle the listener with the movement's insistent rhythm and the lack of a traditional trio. The third movement is perhaps the most perplexing - dark and funereal in a grand manner as if mourning a personal loss. It is only in the genial final movement that Beethoven appears to relax the tension with a Russian theme doubtlessly intended to please the work's aristocratic dedicatee.