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Ludwig Who?

New York
Bard College
08/19/2000 -  

Ludwig van Beethoven: Fugue, Op. 137; Diabelli Variations; Cello Sonata # 5; Elegischer Gesang; Folksong Arrangements; Zur Namensfeier Overture; Symphony # 7; Wellington’s Victory; Incidental Music to Egmont
Jonathan Spitz (cello)
Charles Rosen (piano)
Helen Donath (soprano)
Bard Festival Orchestra
Leon Botstein (conductor)

20 August 2000
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata # 32; Quartet Op. 127; Birthday Cantata for Prince Lobkowitz; Canons; Quartet, Op. 135; Missa Solemnis
Blanca Uribe (piano)
Wihan Quartet
John Aler (tenor), John Cheek (bass), Helen Donath (soprano), Marietta Simpson (mezzo)
New York Virtuoso Singers
Harold Rosenbaum (director)
Bard Festival Orchestra
Leon Botstein (conductor)

Before I abandoned my radio program for the greener pastures of web journalism, I conceived a show entitled "So you think you know Beethoven’s Fifth?", a compendium of the old chestnut in various guises, including historic performances, piano reductions, period instrument versions and the amusing "sportscaster" presentation composed by PDQ Bach. Challenging us to always make the familiar a little less so while stretching our knowledge of the unjustly obscure has been the sacred mission of Leon Botstein, president of Bard College and, oh, by the way, one of the most adventurous conductors in America; for over ten years, Botstein has presented a summer festival centered around one composer and his intellectual and cultural milieu. Sometimes the composer is well known but his works are not (last year the subject was Arnold Schoenberg) and sometimes the focal point is someo ne that we think we know but really don’t (the Haydn Festival, for example). This year’s honoree is Beethoven himself and the festival is designed to mix the beloved with the unknown in order to create a more realistic portrait of a great (and greatly misunderstood) artist. A weekend spent under the amazingly blue sky of the Bard campus always leaves one enlightened and refreshed, forever aware of how much more there is to learn.

What was lacking at the Beethoven festival was a sense of fellow feeling among the crowd. At last year's Schoenberg event, the campus grounds were teeming with the composer's old buddies, family members and lifelong devotees and one recognized many of the same faces that attend the small number of the Viennese master's concerts programmed in New York. Of course, Beethoven had no heirs (except that pesky nephew) and his cronies have long since gone to their reward, so Botstein provided us with the next best thing: a concert featuring a truly genuine Beethoven scholar in Cha rles Rosen. Like Botstein himself, Rosen is primarily an academic and the author of exceptionally cogent material on a wide spectrum of musical topics, performing at the piano more as a hobby than as an avenue towards wealth and fame. His concert opened with a yeoman's rendition of the Diabelli Variations, instructive for its architectural and stylistic sense but unimpressive from a technical standpoint. The second half of the concert featured a loving performance by Jonathan Spitz of the 5th Cello Sonata and a collection of rarities which ran the gamut from the sublime (a powerful performance of the poignant Elegischer Gesang) to the banal (British folksong arrangements). It is ultimately these dusty antiques that distinguish a good Bard Festival and stay in the mind's ear for years to come.

Since Bard is in the process of building a snazzy new auditorium for future festivals which can include opera, the tent this year was right in the middle of the main camp us and housed the first of two orchestral concerts of the weekend. Entitled "Heroism Triumphant", the program emphasized Beethoven at his most bellicose and began with a familiar work treated in a very unfamiliar manner. After an extremely taut and tension ridden performance of the Egmont Overture, Professor Botstein presented not only the rest of the incidental music (about 20 minutes in length) but also a 19th century narration serving as a paean to both Beethoven and Goethe and including a synopsis of the original play. Apparently Egmont's battle strategy was to bore his opponents to death and the interminable (the piece took almost one hour) narration taxed not only the dramatic powers of John Cheek but the attention span of the audience. This incidental text to the incidental music acted as a powerful sleeping potion for a large number of my tenting neighbors and after a fine dinner and a lovely bottle of merlot in an eighteenth century inn in Kingston I was hard pressed to refrain from joining them in their slumbers. But I take my critical duties very seriously and so suffered through the entire reading, marveling at Mr. Cheek's ability to infuse some action into this deadly ramble. Although historically and didactically significant (by this time Botstein is virtually unassailable in these matters), this performance of Egmont has to rank as the dullest imaginable. At the end of the piece the entire crowd began to stretch and wander about, visiting with their neighbors as if it were intermission and refusing to go back to their seats even when the concertmaster began tuning the orchestra for the next work.

Perhaps aware of the soporific nature of the curtain raiser, Maestro launched into the bombastic Wellington's Victory as his next offering. Audiophiles of my generation are very familiar with this work since its two distinct batteries of trumpets and drums made it the perfect showcase for early stereophonic sound. However, this kitschy tableau disappeared f rom the repertoire in recent decades and it was great fun to hear it again. A sonic battle between the forces of Rule Brittania and the French Marlborough (we know it as "for he's a jolly good fellow"), it was composed by Beethoven strictly for the money he could make by showcasing the piece in England. The Bard Festival Orchestra played it quite spiritedly and the taped cannon sounds blended in nicely with the fireworks from across the Hudson.

Moved by the egalitarian spirit of Egmont, I ventured out to the lawn for the second half of this monster concert to sit with the non-paying customers (after all, as a critic I am one of them). Under the stars the orchestra sounded superb in a rousing performance of a virtually unknown concert overture and then a powerful reading of the 7th Symphony (including repeats) characterized, like the Egmont Overture, by its bloodcurdling tension. The first movement was particularly exciting and the tempo of the last was breatht aking. Professor Botstein's conception of the second movement is very different from my own, emphasizing a lyrical, almost andante feel to the main theme rather than a somber one, but it certainly works musically if missing the inexorable depths of despair many associate with this section. What was common to both concerts of this first day was their disproportion. The chamber concert, by beginning with the long Diabelli and then raveling with little rarities, and the orchestral concert, with its very long "first movement", left us all with a skewed sense of linear time, not in a pleasant way like a Schubert piano sonata, but rather in a disconcerted manner which led to surprise when I realized later that these two concerts were not inordinately long, just seemingly so.

Day Two (actually Day Six of this gargantuan festival) was a pure delight Emphasizing Beethoven's metaphysical side, it featured an expectedly fine performance of the last piano sonata by the always reliable Blanca Uribe and an unexpected surprise in the masterful performance of the youthful Wihan String Quartet from the Czech Republic. Ms. Uribe was forceful and delicate in tandem, traversing the dramatic score with its severe contrasts as a master storyteller, delivering her final ode before journeying into the great beyond. Her reading was thought provoking and blessedly ethereal as the music progressed from Sturm und Drang to eternal peace. Women play this sonata differently from men (witness the Myra Hess recordings) and we all felt its underlying spiritual quality radiate from the keyboard.

Ludwig's cronies did show up in spirit with a rollicking set of canons composed for them primarily as comical drinking songs. The unnamed "members of the New York Virtuoso Singers" had great fun in recreating the personae of these lusty musical men and we were even all involved in a singalong on the theme of Esel aller Esel (jackass of jackasses). Beethoven the man shown through in these pieces, fueling that ever ragin g fire as to the nature of his genius and his relationship to the intellectual community of his day (and that of our own).

Those of you who still wonder why we critics rhapsodize so over the late quartets would have understood a little better had you been able to hear the two magnificent performances of the Wihan Quartet. They are characterized by high energy but also a profound sense of the beautiful as the Adagio of the 12th quartet so richly demonstrated. The 16th and last work in the genre is the subject of much philosophical debate. Suffice it to say that the Wihan stated whatever is the ultimate message eloquently, positing the final questions and answers (ala Gertrude Stein) in an unforgettably powerful blended voice. These are men of great potential and will be featured in a series of four young Czech quartets this season at the 92nd Street Y. What a fitting prelude for the final tent event.

The Missa Solemnis is an unusual combination of t he familiar and the rare. An acknowledged part of the Beethovenian "masterpiece collection", it is often recorded but hardly ever performed any longer. Perhaps religious works in general have run their course in the modern world or perhaps the difficult choral writing presents too much of a challenge. In any case, this was a powerful performance, frighteningly awe-inspiring in parts, exquisitely polished in others. Special praise goes to the violin solo of Joel Pitchon in the Sanctus, even more naked in the outdoor setting and recalling to me my astonishment as a boy that Beethoven would let such an individual line linger for so long in a such a massive work. The soloists were no more than adequate but the chorus was excellent.

Bard experiences need to be taken in toto. The quality of the performances is only one aspect of these splendid retreats. What really matters is the sense of mission, of ongoing exploration, of somehow making a difference. Here at least it is certainly true tha t you "learn something new every day".

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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