November 18, 2008

Glee, Times Three

By Michelle Dulak Thomson

Music Director Nicholas McGegan began Sunday night's Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra concert at Berkeley's First Congregational Church with a theatricality that, for longtime PBO fans, now seems paradoxically "homey." He crept to the podium and put his finger to his lips, urging silence.
He didn't quite get it, but went ahead anyway with the opening of Beethoven's Op. 56 Concerto for piano, violin, cello, and orchestra (the "Triple Concerto"): just cellos and basses, whisper-soft but perfectly unanimous. Within a few bars, the entire audience was finally quiet, and we were treated to that most authentic of turn-of-the-19th-century concert beginnings: musical order out of audience tumult.

At a time when the period-instrument pioneers have long since gotten bored with pioneering in the 19th century altogether, having moved on years ago to the likes of Debussy, Ravel, Schoenberg, and Strauss, it seems a little odd that there's no period-instrument recording of the Beethoven "Triple" in print. As it happens, there remain a number of modern-instruments-only zones in recorded Beethoven, some of them (e.g., most of the late string quartets) pretty significant. But the "Triple" is the only big orchestral work I can think of that's been let slide. If comparative ephemera like the Choral Fantasy make the cut, why not this?

At a guess, it's that solo cello part. The "Triple" divvies up its solo responsibilities in a way that's the reverse of what you'd expect from Beethoven's (unaccompanied) piano trios. The piano part is, by the composer's standards, sparse and not at all flashy — just present enough not to sound entirely like an afterthought. The violin is comparatively busy, but it's the cello that takes the lead in all three movements, and most of the time in a cruelly high register.

Beethoven doubtless adopted this distribution of duties with the skills of the intended first soloists in mind. (It was the cellist, Anton Kraft, who was the virtuoso of that trio — cellists who don't know the "Triple" but do know Haydn's knuckle-busting D-Major Cello Concerto can get some idea of the former if they remember that the Haydn was also written for Kraft, a quarter of a century earlier.) Period-instrument playing has gotten so much more secure and stylish over its few decades of existence that listening to some of the documents of its first recording boom can still shock. Even now, though, we are scarcely awash in new Anton Krafts.

The intrepid Tanya Tomkins, Sunday, vaulted through the difficulties with the grace and limberness of a gymnast. Kräftig (vigorous) she may not always have been; in places she was almost inaudibly quiet, and the opening of the Polonaise finale seemed to me too suave and legato, not kicky enough. But "Kraftlike" — in the sense not only of getting through this fearsome thicket of notes, but also of imparting character to everything — that, she certainly was. It was the playing of an unmistakable soloist, and one with the guts to sing sweetly even on the edge of a precipice.
Splendid Communication
If Colin Jacobsen, the violin soloist, impressed me less, it's only fair to say that he had much less to do. He was most impressive in technical terms, singing on the E string with such ease that I half wondered whether it was really gut and not steel. And as a chamber player he was superb, communicating with Tomkins and the fortepianist, Eric Zivian, in clear physical terms where the three had to coordinate some momentary tempo-bending. Those trio-only places were sheer delight, particularly the one return of the rondo theme in the finale where Beethoven out-Haydns Haydn in toying with the audience, delaying the return and then delaying even the delays.

Still, I wish Jacobsen had had a little more snap and sizzle in his bowing and his vibrato. There was a sort of equable smoothness in his playing that seemed (dare I say it) not quite apt to the period, or at least to the period as understood and interpreted by the rest of this orchestra. The kind of articulation under the slur, emphasis within a legato context, that Tomkins favored didn't seem to be exactly his style. And he tended to emphasize, when he did, seemingly by weight rather than bow speed or vibrato, which made everything feel a little too much the same.

Zivian, who is Tomkins' longstanding fortepiano partner, had least to do of all. His instrument was a massive Graf, ca. 1820, outfitted (like the instrument Robert Levin used in his PBO performances of the "Emperor" Concerto last season) with all the bells and whistles, up to and including a janissary stop (bells, cymbals, and drum). Used without the special effects, it seemed a little coarse and clunky for what Zivian tried to do with it. In one passage in the finale, though, involving a long trill in the extreme bass range, Zivian conjured an extraordinary sound out of the thing; it was as though a bunch of unwitting folk-dancers had crushed a yellow-jacket nest and were about to get their comeuppance. Like it or not (and let the record show that I loved it), you can't make a modern piano sound like that, at least not without power tools.

It was the exigencies of moving the instrument that must have dictated the program layout, with the Beethoven alone on the first half and the two earlier-written symphonies following. It worked well, though; we had had a heady taste of the orchestra in the Beethoven's expansive tuttis, and after intermission the players had leave to break loose.
Gleeful McGegan
McGegan's Haydn is, as they say, a "known quantity." But Haydn himself is never a known quantity; you're always struck by something new. Sometimes it's just an orchestrational detail. (This time through Symphony No. 88, I was struck by the "violoncello obbligato" part in the finale, probably because McGegan had principal cellist Phoebe Carrai play it as a solo, rather than giving it to the whole section.)
But then there are things in Haydn that never grow old. McGegan obviously relished the folkish trio of the Symphony's Menuetto, with its droning fifths, its off-meter accents, and its weird scale. His glee in the finale's famous mammoth canon — the orchestra splits into two parts, chasing each other with the same music a fraction of a second apart, and the game goes on far longer than you'd think possible — was even greater.

The end of the movement, though, was the best. There are three brusque chords, the last of which McGegan cut off with a slashing, commanding gesture. Then the torrent broke loose: violins cascading down and then up again until the whole joyous rush reached the sea and the piece was over. It sounds easy, to build a Haydn finale to the point where the rest of it is almost literally "all downhill" and the energy takes care of itself — but it isn't.

I might have wished for a slower slow movement. At McGegan's speed, sometimes important cadences scarcely had time for their resolutions to register. You heard the big dissonance preceding the cadence, but between the tapering off of the violins' phrase endings and the speed of the music, you had no real chance to hear the cadence itself. Then, too, some of the violins' airy variations on the theme became a bit too aggressive for comfort at such speed. This might have been finely knotted lace, but it was still lace you didn't really want too near your throat.

Mozart's "Haffner" Symphony (K. 385) got the last spot. I thought at first that the Haydn ought to have been in its place, but the "Haffner" was a perfect concert-ender. Mozart initially wrote the symphony under such extreme time pressure that on receiving a copy he'd asked to be sent to him, so that he could use it in a pending concert, he professed not to remember a note of it. (He also incidentally proclaimed that it had turned out to be damned good stuff, which is true.)

Philharmonia is a great Baroque orchestra, but it's in this later repertoire that I think I love it most. There's all the litheness and attention in the string playing, and also that marvelous wind choir, bolstered here by horns, trumpets, timpani, and (in the Mozart) clarinets. And, beyond that, McGegan at his most active, the sort of conductor who just gets music thoroughly into his own system and then is intent only on getting it out again to the players, as little concerned with what he looks like from behind as an organist is.

There's a little chromatic fidget near the end of the "Haffner" finale, a thing like a puppy wriggling up a hill in order to charge down it. McGegan wriggled, the orchestra wriggled, and then there we all were — with a puppy's-eyed view of the goal. Ridiculous? Maybe. Also splendid, and glorious, and so far from dull that it was hard for me, in that moment, to believe that a Mozart symphony could ever be boring.

Michelle Dulak Thomson is a violinist and violist who has written about music for Strings, Stagebill, Early Music America, and The New York Times.