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Mozart's Turn

April 18, 2009

Avedis Chamber Music Series

This year’s season of the Avedis chamber music concerts has been devoted to small surveys of a given composer and his associates, per program. Saturday afternoon in the Palace of the Legion of Honor, it was Mozart’s turn, with “Mozart and Friends.” Ironically, the program might also have been called “Beethoven, His Friends and Students.”

Haydn’s Flute Trio No. 1 in C Major, “London,” opened the program, followed by Mozart’s Flute Quartet in A Major, K. 298, and Andreas Jakob Romberg’s Flute Quintet in B-flat Major, Op. 21, No. 2. Following intermission came Mozart’s Flute Quartet in C Major, K. 285b, and Ferdinand Ries’ Flute Quintet in B Minor, Op. 107. Flutist Alexandra Hawley occupied the spotlight position, supported by violinists Roy Malan and Susan Freier, violist Paul Hersh, and cellist Stephen Harrison.

Oddly enough, the two most unusual works proved to be the most impressive experiences of the afternoon: the Quintets of Romberg and Ries — especially Romberg’s. Romberg (1767-1821) grew up in Bonn, where his father-teacher, Gerhard Romberg, was a court musician. (One of Papa Romberg’s other students was the young Beethoven.) A violin prodigy, Andreas made his debut at age 7 and was making continental tours by age 15. Those tours naturally included Vienna, where he played performances with Beethoven.

Romberg’s four-movement Quintet is, first and foremost, a very well made, balanced composition of elegant and sometimes poignant melodic riches. There were polished little fugal passages and subtle modulations, as well. Several passages might easily be mistaken for Schubert. But best of all, there was never a tedious moment in the piece from start to finish. It deserves more exposure.

Ries’ Beethoven connection was even stronger. Born and raised in Bonn, Ries (1784-1838) also studied with Romberg’s father, and his own. He was destined to become a major piano virtuoso of the period, as well as a recognized composer of worth. He went on to study in Munich and Vienna, where he became not only Beethoven’s student but also his copyist. Beethoven thought highly enough of Ries to help him make his Vienna debut in 1804, playing the master’s Third Concerto.

The Beethoven influence in Ries’ three-movement Quintet in B Minor stood out. For its time, the music is uncommonly assertive, and often highly dramatic. Although it fell from grace in the late 19th century, it was considered a major repertory piece for years after the composer’s death. Robert Schumann could be counted among its admirers, partly (I suspect) because of its subtle use of advanced harmony.

Courting the AmateurHaydn’s Trio — if it really is by Haydn — and the two Mozart Quartets brilliantly suited their purpose as house music. After all, most middle- or upper-class families had their kids take music lessons, since making music together was a common household occurrence. At the very least, a family should be able to count on performing piano four-hand works. It was that, or playing cards, after dinner.

Writing music that was both pleasant and playable by amateur musicians kept many a patronless composer alive. The trick was to find such music from the hands of a master, a trend that lasted well into the early 20th century. Brahms wrote his Hungarian Dances to that four-hand purpose, and Dvořák his Slavonics. But Mozart, as with just about everything, remains at the head of the table.

Haydn became wildly popular and commercially successful during his lifetime. He evolved into a kind of brand name. If his name appeared on a score, it sold all around Europe — and beyond. (It’s said that George Washington owned a keyboard transcription of the slow movement from Haydn’s 53rd Symphony.) Thus Haydn died relatively well off, aided by the fact that he was essentially a frugal man.

Unscrupulous publishers began issuing compositions by other composers under his name, even pieces by his brother Michael. Lists of such frauds are long. The Haydn catalog I own lists 20 trios for two violins and cello. Optionally, they can also be played by flute, violin, and cello, which is how the Avedis musicians offered their Trio.

Alas, there are 59 more such trios, rather charmingly listed in the program booklet as existing in “... various degrees of possible authenticity.” There’s something a tad fishy about “Trio No. 1 in C Major,” played on Saturday’s program. (The first on my list is in E-flat Major, not in “C”.) Of course, my catalog is over a dozen years old and these things do change.

The Trio was nice enough and short enough to make a calming icebreaker, if a tad bland melodically. But, as I’ve said, there’s no real telling whether it’s authentic or not. How things change is part of the “it is/no it isn’t” game that scholars love to play. It’s just that it didn’t quite sound like authentic Haydn to me.

With performers of this caliber, it goes without saying that the performances were generally good, and, in the Romberg, stunning. The opening two works, however, sounded a little under-rehearsed, not quite as polished in ensemble. Still, that may well be the way their composers expected to hear them.

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.