Sunday, May 12, 2013

concert review: Beethoven a camera

The same Stanford piano professors who sponsor those symposia on the study of early recordings that I've attended in the past have put on a stand-alone concert at Bing. In keeping with this year's Stanford Music Dept. concert theme, it was all Beethoven. And the concert featured something unusual: period arrangements of Beethoven's orchestral music for chamber ensemble.

I was aware of the existence of such things - they were the customary way of making orchestral music portable in an era of few public concerts and no recordings - but I'd rarely heard any, which was rather the point of making Saturday's concert out of them.

The big work on the program was the Piano Concerto No. 4, with the orchestra replaced by a string quintet, in an arrangement probably not written by Beethoven, but certainly authorized by him. The sound was startling at first, but I got used to it. Kumaran Arul was the pianist, and apart from adding some approved decorations here and there, played it pretty straight. This was a performance for listening to the unusual arrangement rather than pondering the depths of interpretation, so it ticked along a little, but it was awfully fun.

Also on that part of the program, the scherzo from Beethoven's own piano-and-strings trio arrangement of the Symphony No. 2, and an 1840s reduction of the Egmont Overture for piano, both played by Arul with entirely unprecedented and offbeat phrasing, definitely weird and disconcerting stuff.

The other half of the program included selections from some of the unarranged sonatas for string and piano, plus a vocal treat. Wendy Hillhouse, who carries interesting repertoire wherever she goes, sang some Scottish folk songs in Beethoven's arrangements with strings-and-piano trio. This is a major part of his oeuvre which is completely neglected: this is only the second time I've ever heard any. Beethoven's Scottish publisher sent him the tunes, Beethoven provided the accompaniments, and they both made a lot of money from the publication. Most of the songs are fairly obscure, but one in this selection is still pretty well known: "Auld Lang Syne", from which you can hear how much serious effort Beethoven put into his arrangements.

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