Distinguished Artists’ Beethoven Festival

By Scott MacClelland

ON SUNDAY ALON GOLDSTEIN opened the four-night series of Beethoven sonatas offered via Zoom by Santa Cruz’s Distinguished Artists series. Delivered in fine video and excellent sound, the solo recital was performed at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. Goldstein, familiar with obvious artistic justification to local classical fans for his appearances in Santa Cruz and Carmel, gave relaxed spoken introductions to the two Op 27 ‘quasi una fantasia’ sonatas and the Sonata in E-flat ‘Les adieux’. The designation given to the first two, completed in 1801, suggests a more improvisational than architectural character. Goldstein illustrated his comments with snippets at the keyboard. But the smoldering flame of Beethoven was plainly at hand. The Op 27, No 1 (in four movements) uses the composer’s heroic key of E-flat. The second (in three movements and known everywhere as ‘Moonlight’ is in C-sharp minor. Goldstein showed what a powerful difference that key made by playing the opening movement’s broken chords in plain C minor. As polished as his playing of these pieces was, he broke off early in two movements and restarted from the top: no harm done. The ‘Farewell’ sonata, dating from 1910, was Beethoven’s homage to his patron, Archduke Rudolph, who, like most of Vienna’s aristocrats, was fleeing town as Napoleon’s forces marched in. The three movements of the piece are titled: Das Lebewohl, Abwesenheit and Das Wiedersehen (Farewell, Absence and Reunion.) The mood of each is captured in the music. Though some viewers apparently had Zoom technical problems with the sound—or absence thereof—I found this concert most satisfying. Indeed, it reminded of how much I miss hearing live music.

MONDAY EVENING saw the introduction of the cello in a program of two of the five sonatas for that instrument and piano. Tanya Tomkins, playing on gut strings, joined Audrey Vardanega and a Poletti fortepiano for the popular Sonata in A of 1808. For the Sonata in C. Op 102, No 1 of 1815 Vardanega used a Rausch fortepiano. As to the cello, Tomkins displayed great authority, gut strings notwithstanding. (I don’t know if the two musicians used tuning of Beethoven’s time but there was no loss of brilliance from either cello or keyboards.) It should be noted that Beethoven lived across the full span of technological advancement in piano manufacturing. The Poletti is from the era of Mozart, with limited keys and no pedals. The Rausch is much enlarged, including pedals. (The Ira Brilliant Beethoven Center at San Jose State has a piano made in 1827, the year of Beethoven’s death, with a full 88 keys—essentially a modern instrument—and some extra ‘bells and whistles’ for novelty effects.) One could make the case that Beethoven’s early keyboard sonatas all but overwhelmed the fortepianos of that time; Beethoven was the necessity that became the mother of invention. These were excellent readings of the two works, red-blooded and, in the Zoom stream from an intimate room to my own, worthy of a fine cabernet sauvignon. Two recitals remain in this Beethoven series: pianists Jonathan Biss tonight and Garrick Ohlsson tomorrow.

Cristian Măcelaru and the French National Orchestra

By Scott MacClelland

CRISTIAN MĂCELARU conducted the Orchestre National de France in a short concert that was telecast last Wednesday, 11am West Coast time, by France Musique. Without a live audience, the musicians were left to applaud themselves after each of the three works on the program. The Cabrillo Festival’s Măcelaru was named the orchestra’s music director just this year. He was interviewed after the program, in English, but the presenter translated his remarks into French louder in real time, making it hard to catch everything Măcelaru said about the program, which consisted of the overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Tchaikovsky’s orchestral homage to “the Christ of music,” Mozartiana, and the fabulous Sinfonietta by Francis Poulenc.

Founded in 1934, the ONF performs in the elegant Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. It was not easy to gauge Măcelaru’s dynamic contrasts because of the flattened sound engineering but the audio did offer plenty of presence and transparency. This provided easy access to the details of drama and complexity in the Mozart overture.

Tchaikovsky’s Mozartiana is at best an oddity by a composer capable of unprecedented originality and shameless kitsch, the latter tarnishing what ultimately comes across as a slapdash tribute to his favorite composer. (He wrote it in 1887 on the 100th anniversary of the premiere of Don Giovanni.) The fugal opening Gigue orchestrated Mozart’s piano gigue (K 574). The Menuet gives a similar treatment to Mozart’s minuet for piano (K 355). The suite’s Preghiera (prayer) extracted the late choral work, Ave verum corpus (K 618), from a piano transcription medley of it and another Mozart choral work by Liszt. The final Theme and (ten) Variations is derived from a set of jocular variations that Mozart took from a tune from an opera by Gluck. (All these arcane sources are forgettable, save the Ave verum corpus.) The second variation, with its garish cymbal crashes, sounded especially cheap. The sparkling eighth variation gives way to a mini violin concerto movement of no small virtuosity.

Poulenc’s Sinfonietta, for all its insouciant gaiety, masks a deeper expression that often goes unnoticed by other conductors. Hidden within its four movements are darkly circumspect passages that Măcelaru made sure were given proper attention. Far from the composer’s early irreverent shenanigans, this work dates from 1947, a commission from BBC Radio 3. Poulenc was jolted out of youthful high spirits in 1936 by the violent death in a car crash of an esteemed colleague and returned to the roots of his Catholic faith with the first of several choral works on sacred themes; these culminated in his 1953 operatic masterpiece Dialogues des Carmélites (Dialogues of the Carmelites) for which he wrote both words and music, the Gloria for soprano, chorus and orchestra of 1959 and Sept répons des ténèbres of 1961. In his performance with the ONF of the Sinfonietta Măcelaru revealed the greater depth in Poulenc’s music that other hands often gloss over.