Early Beethoven well-served by Orchestra Miami

By Lawrence Budmen

Chamber music of Beethoven was spotlighted in a concert presented by Orchestra Miami Saturday night. Painting by Joseph Willibrord Mähler, 1805.

The week of the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth was celebrated in appropriately festive style by Orchestra Miami with a program of chamber music, livestreamed from the Coral Gables Women’s Club on Saturday night. Featuring two early works from Beethoven’s final time in Bonn and initial years in Vienna, the concert explored scores in the master’s lighter, more populist vein.

The evening’s heaviest offering was not by Beethoven. Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K. 546 owes much to Bach in its contrapuntal intricacy and expressive depth. Violinists Mei Mei Luo and Karen Lord Powell, violist Gregory Falkenstein and cellist Aaron Merritt brought gravitas to the dark opening and cleanly articulated the individual instrumental components of the fugue, wuth the Bachian influences brought strongly to the fore.

Although published in 1810, Beethoven’s Sextet in E-flat Major for two horns and strings dates from the 1790’s when the youthful composer was seeking to impress and delight musicians and audiences alike. While not a timeless masterpiece and far from the pathbreaking compositions of his creative maturity, this three-movement score is a charmer and clearly the work of a master. The horn parts extend to the instruments’ upper range and challenge the players’ agility. It is difficult to imagine that the piece was initially played on valveless instruments, so difficult are its technical hurdles. Playing modern brass instruments, Stanley Spinola and Andrew Karr admirably encompassed the leaps and trills of the opening Allegro con brio.

Beethoven was clearly under the influence of Mozart when writing this sextet and that is clearly evident in the Adagio. The horns spun a long lyrical melody of great beauty while maintaining precision and accuracy of intonation, the string players acting as a well proportioned backup ensemble. Horn calls form the basis of the concluding Rondo’s principal subject which was rendered with vigor and exuberance.

On April 2, 1800 Beethoven introduced himself to musical Vienna with a concert that included the premiere of his First Symphony and the Septet in E-flat Major, Op. 20. The latter work was the hit of that evening and bedeviled Beethoven for the remainder of his life because listeners constantly asked him to write more works in that style. At one point, he even denied its authorship and even suggested the score should be burned. 

Today it is easy to hear why the septet proved so popular from its first night. Filled with infectious high spirits and stuffed to the brim with great melodies, the six-movement, quasi-divertimento is a pillar of the chamber music literature. 

Luo, Falkenstein, Merritt and Spinola were joined by Brian Powell on double bass, clarinetist Richard Hancock and bassoonist Gabriel Beavers for a performance that mixed vivacity and subtlety in equal measure Hancock’s mellow clarinet resounded in the memorable theme of the Adagio cantabile with Beavers producing a warmth of tone not usually encountered from the bassoon. The conversational intimacy between instruments was adroitly captured in the Tempo di menuetto. While the main motif was played with incisive energy, the aristocratic strokes of the trio were adroitly captured.

In the masterful theme and variations of the fourth movement, all solos were well accounted for. The melodic transformations were infused with wit, none more so than Powell’s double bass solo of the principal line. In the Andante con moto introduction to the finale, there are suggestions of the sterner and more austere Beethoven to come but that is quickly dispelled by the joyous alla marcia. Luo splendidly assayed the extended violin cadenza and the invigorating lift of the ensemble brought the program to a lively close.

Except for some occasional static feedback from the microphones, the audio and video streaming was clear and well coordinated. Merritt was an engaging host, providing astute verbal program notes. The entire presentation was a fine birthday tribute to one of music’s greatest creative spirits.

Orchestra Miami presents a free livestream of Duo Beaux Arts playing a four-hand piano transcription of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8, 4 p.m. Sunday, December 27.  orchestramiami.org

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Sun Dec 20, 2020
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