Weekend With the Masters: Beethoven, Stravinsky & Schubert

Saturday evening I attended the New York Philharmonic's performance of Beethoven's 2nd and 7th Symphonies and Stravinsky's Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra.  David Zinman was the guest conductor, and Peter Serkin played the piano solo in the Stravinsky.  Then on Sunday afternoon, I attended the Peoples' Symphony Concerts program at Town Hall, composed entirely of music for violin and piano by Schubert, performed by Jaime Laredo (violin) and Leon Fleisher (piano).

The Philharmonic concert was invigorating.  David Zinman is an advocate for the most recent critical edition of the Beethoven symphony scores, which corrects various errors from earlier published editions and incorporates Beethoven's fast-paced metronome markings.  He also has assiduously adapted insights from the "early music" movement.  The resulting performances are sprightly and pointed, as the strings articulate crisply, accents and dynamic changes are emphasized, brass are very uninhibited, and various little "changes" lead to interesting discoveries. 

For example, the very flowing pace for the "larghetto" in the 2nd Symphony and the "allegretto" in the 7th Symphony give both works an overall lighter cast, as there really isn't a "slow movement" as such.  Some harmonies sound slightly different, and in the 2nd Symphony the sound of "stopped" horns – a buzzy sort of thing – provided interesting seasoning in the first movement.  Another oddity from the critical edition is letting the principal oboe player interpolate a little cadenza in the first movement of the 7th Symphony – in roughly the equivalent spot to the written-out cadenza for the oboe in the 5th Symphony's first movement.  I also heard some additional ornamentation from the principal clarinet in the second movement of the 7th.  Zinman began that second movement without any pause after the first movement — and it made sense, as the opening wind chord serves as a sort of transitional gateway into the low strings intoning the rhythmic motif that is the principal theme of the movement.  The lack of a pause emphasizes the harmonic continuity of the two movements, an insight that can be lost if there is the usual pause for audience coughing and shifting in seats.  Lots of fun and interesting insights….  Listen to Zinman's brilliant recording of the entire Beethoven Symphony cycle with his Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra (distributed by BMG) in order to hear how these insights play out through the entire cycle.

The Stravinsky is an odd duck sort of piece.  The composer had previously written a Concerto for Piano and Winds as a solo vehicle for himself, and he discovered that touring as a piano soloist was reasonably lucrative (and perhaps less demanding than touring as a conductor, a more strenuous job), so the ever-practical Stravinsky decided to write another piece, this time for piano and full orchestra, to tour with as a soloist. He borrowed from the baroque concerto grosso style by having four string soloists form a solo group to play in alternation to the full string body (concertino vs. ripieno).  The piano part sounds quite awkward to me in terms of its big interval leaps and jagged rhythms.  I certainly found the piece interesting.  Although it is in three movements, they all run together, and he didn't call it a concerto.  The finale, "Allegro capriccioso a ma tempo giusto," really sounds to me like a jokey sort of scherzo, very pop-influenced, and I saw Serkin smiling quite a bit during that finale – as if he was enjoying sharing a good joke with the audience.

My Sunday afternoon entertainment was very different.  Jaime Laredo and Leon Fleisher decided to present the complete works for violin and piano by Franz Schubert in one recital.  I think this is a big mistake.  Schubert composed his three sonatinas and grand duo while still a teenager. Although his natural melodic gift is present, his ability to work out his thoughts in full-blown sonata movements was still very much in development when he was 18 and 19, and these pieces are not in the same league as the late piano sonatas, quartets, and trios.  Indeed, although he labelled them as sonatas, when they came to be published the publisher thought them too slight for that designation and called them "Sonatinas," an appropriate judgment in my opinion.  The "Grand Duo" from the following year marks a significant advance in compositional maturity.  (Consider the sheer volume of Schubert's output – the catalogue numbers for the three sonatinas of 1816 are 384, 385 and 408, while the Grand Duo from a year later is catalogued as number 574!)

I found the first half of the program a bit sleepy – and not due to the performers, who put forth a great effort, but due to the weakness of the material.  The Grand Duo after intermission was more interesting.  People were dozing all around me during the first half, but the audience seemed much more alert after the intermission.  Programming an entire recital with Schubert's violin music was not a brilliant idea. 

I do have a particular sentimental regard for Jaime Laredo, because he was the violin soloist on one of the first recordings I bought as a teenage record collector – Bach's Violin Concerto No. 1 and Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3.  That was on the RCA Victrola budget label in the early 1960s.  And, of course, as a student collector I thrilled to Leon Fleisher's recordings with Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra of the Beethoven and Brahms piano concerti.  So it is exciting to hear a recital by two musicians whose work I have known for almost 40 years.  I just wish they had selected a more varied program.  Any one of the Sonatinas or the Grand Duo might be interesting to hear interspersed with works from other periods, but two hours of Schubert for violin and piano is a bit much.

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