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Beethoven Plus Four

December 18, 2007

Splitting his program right down the middle, pianist William Wellborn devoted the first half of his Sunday afternoon recital in Old First Church to 18th-century masters and the second to 19th-century composers. In place of the all-Beethoven program that had been announced, Wellborn programmed his pieces to display contrasts. It made for some intriguing comparisons.
The program opened with a set of six of Domenico Scarlatti's Sonatas: K. 238 and 239 in F minor, K. 9 in D minor, and a recently authenticated G major without a Kirkpatrick number, plus K. 208 and 209 in A major. These were followed by Mozart's Sonata No. 13 in B-flat Major, K. 333.

Following intermission, we heard Beethoven's Sonata No. 18 in E-flat Major, Op. 31, No. 3, and two Franz Liszt pieces, the Sonetto 123 del Petrarca and his Concert Paraphrase on Verdi's Rigoletto. That last drew such an ovation that an encore became a paramount necessity, which turned out to be the famous Chopin Waltz in C-sharp Minor, Op. 64, No. 2.

The original program was supposed to honor Beethoven's 237th birthday. That struck me as merely a gimmick, to begin with. Who makes a fuss over anything that hits 237 years? Besides which, Wellborn, on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory, is best known as an expert in Chopin and Liszt. (He is, among other things, founding president of the Bay Area chapter of the American Liszt Society.)

And sure enough, his two Liszt presentations formed the highlight of the afternoon. Wellborn seemed to the manner born. The lovely lyricism of the little Petrarch setting — which Liszt transcribed from one of his songs — flowed like an autumn breeze, with just enough tasteful body English in Wellborn's rubato.

The Rigoletto rhapsody sits as a mildly silly-sounding vaudeville piece, designed to show off piano technique. Audiences have always loved it, combining as it does Verdi's great tunes with Liszt's pyrotechnics. Wellborn flashed his way through the bravura piece. It's strange, however, that Liszt's other eight Verdi fantasies have aroused so little interest among pianists. Actually, the most serious is the last one on Simon Boccanegra, a quite late work peppered with avant-garde touches.
Showing Flash in Six Harpsichord Sonatas
Scarlatti has often been referred to as the Liszt of the 18th century. His short, one-movement sonatas brim with innovations of technique and harmonic daring. They can be melancholic, pastoral, military, or stormy, but it's the virtuoso flash in his Spanish-colored sonatas that cap the best of his harpsichord sonatas (possibly totaling 555, though things keep turning up every so often).

Back in the late 1960s, I happened to be staying in the same hotel as Fernando Valenti. He had been recording the complete Scarlatti sonatas for Westminster, which at that point took up 26 LPs. When I asked him how long the cycle would last, he answered, "It'll never be finished! Every time I think I've finished with it, some busybody musicologist turns up another half dozen found in some godforsaken spot, and I have to start over on another disc."

Wellborn played the Scarlatti examples not as imitation harpsichord, but as piano music. He used a lot of legato playing, with touches of rubato to emphasize languid moments. That's fine, up to a point, but they could have done with a tad more articulation in the dancelike pieces, especially during their Spanish guitar imitations. The performances were nice, but not totally in character.

Mozart's K. 333 is an inordinately gentle piece, basically devoted to wit and songlike lyricism. There's no delving into the dark colors of his companion piano sonatas, K. 330-32. But its charms hold much danger for the performer, such as the urge to oversell the piece. Wellborn didn't give in to that temptation, instead keeping a firm eye on the elegance of the music without trying to dramatize music that, in essence, is emotionally simple. After all, the sonata was doubtless intended as a teaching piece, fit for use in the average household.

The one flaw of the performance seemed to indicate minor bits of nervousness in Wellborn's playing. He sometimes lacked absolute rhythmic precision in the passagework, though this was never grievous, but rather as if the keys were somewhat dusty.
Mesh of Musical Models
Beethoven's big E-flat Sonata is nearly a concerto without orchestra. Each of the four movements is demanding: an opening Sonata-Allegro, followed by a whirlwind of a Scherzo, a Menuetto, and something approaching a tarantella finale — minus any true slow movement. The sonata also represents perhaps a mesh of the classical models of the late 18th century and the then-new Romanticism sweeping Europe. It's a bit like the Second Symphony, completed in the same year, 1802.

So, how to play it? A musician can do a straightforward presentation true to its classical background, or push it forward into Romantic style. As far as I can tell, the ideal lies somewhere in between. Wellborn chose the Romantic way, but went a little too far in that direction, with frequent tempo changes in the first movement that diluted the structural element. He was best in the Scherzo and Menuetto, and especially sensitive to the latter's grace.

But on the whole, this formed the least enjoyable performance of the recital. Mostly, I found the Beethoven performance too hard a sell, except that the Presto con fuoco finale was, for me, neither quite Presto nor Fuoco (fiery) enough. Color it "careful." The Chopin encore, however, was delightful in every way, particularly since the old warhorse is so rarely programmed these days.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.