Fort Worth — The fourth concert (7:30 p.m. Feb. 29) of the 2020 Cliburn Festival, Beethoven at 250, ended on a quizzical note with Sean Chen’s virtuosic transcription, à la Liszt, for solo piano of Beethoven’s massive Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125. More about that later.
This program brought us an encore appearance by the terrific baritone David Grogan, who performed in the afternoon concert as well, singing a selection of Beethoven’s Goethe songs. He was teamed with Filippo Gorini, also the afternoon program. This was his Texas debut and proved to be a pianist that dazzled us on the concert presented earlier that afternoon.
In keeping with the appreciated effort at variety that the Cliburn staff wanted to present, we heard vocal music as well as Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 1 in F major, Op. 18, No. 1 as played by Juilliard’s Verona Quartet. The cellist, Jonathan Dormand, stuck around to play the birthday boy’s Twelve Variations on Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen (A Girl or a Little Wife), Op. 66, from Mozart’s fantastical singspiel opera Die zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). Chen’s shiny shy at the ninth symphony’s finale ended the concert with a fröhlich flare.
As in the afternoon concert, we marveled at Grogan’s handsomely produced and artistically wielded baritone voice. He is a singer with such versatility that he is equally at home in Baroque, modern and Romantic opera, as well as in any recital venue and is even able to blend in choral ensembles. The pair opened with a song set on a text from Goethe’s Faust titled “Aus Goethe’s Faust” (“From Goethe’s Faust”). It is better known as “Mephistos Flohgesang” (“Mephisto's Song of the Flea”), and is the fifth song of his Opus 75, Sechs Gesänge (Six Songs). The clever, sarcastic text is a silly satire about ridiculousness of royalty, told in a mock serioso manner. The pair charmingly captured this comic contradiction.
Next came the fourth of eight songs in Beethoven’s Op. 52, Maigesang (May Songs). This, like the others presented, is strophic in nature, meaning it has three verses with different texts, set to identical music. Grogan properly followed Beethoven’s singsong setting of Goethe’s happy-go-lucky rhymed couplets. But the magic in this performance was created by Gorini in all of the piano’s sparkling interludes.
Beethoven’s strophic song, “Sehnsucht,” Op. 83, No. 2, followed. “Sehnsucht” is a basically untranslatable German word but, to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s statement about the difficulty of defining pornography, “you know it when you feel it.”
Suggested English translations range from wiggles such as “longing” to “pining” to the more carnal “craving.” And, whatever “Sehnsucht” you think means in this context, I certainly felt “it” in this performance.
The pair closed with the second song in the composer’s Op. 75, titled “Neue liebe, neue leben” (“New Love, New Life”). They took this constant flow of words a little too quickly in the fast sections, giving it the breathless pace of a patter song. But it was delightful. The slower passages were better paced and heartfelt.
Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 18, received an outstanding, but restrained, performance by the Verona Quartet. What was immediately noticeable, as well as laudable, was the placement of the instrumentalists in a semi-circle, starting with the audience’s left perspective this way: Violin I, Viola, Cello, Violin II. Most often, the violist sits opposite the Violin I, which puts the already subtler viola’s sound-producing f holes pointed backward. The arrangement used here allowed the viola to point outwards toward the audience. While this may seem like a minor detail, it is not, because it let the viola to sing out, helping the overall balance.
This turned out to be a good thing for this group because of its reserved approach, perhaps honoring this early quartet’s close hewing to Haydn’s model. However, the overall balance, bowing, attacks, voicing, interpretation and ensemble was of prize-winning quality. The scherzo movement could have used more saucing with humor, but the offbeat chords in the finale were perfectly placed.
After intermission, the cellist from the quartet, Jonathan Dormand, was joined by Cliburn laureate Kenny Broberg for a performance of Beethoven’s Twelve Variations on the theme Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen (A Girl or a Little Wife), Op. 66 for cello and piano. This theme comes from Mozart’s eternally popular comic masterpiece The Magic Flute. It is sung by Papageno, the bird catcher and comic foil for the romantic hero, Tamino. He is pining for his perfect little wife, “
This is the aria in which he uses his magic bells to make his wish happen. She (Papagena) shows up as requested, but her birdish charms are hidden by the guise of an old crone. It all works out in the end and the feathers fly.
Beethoven loved to write, and especially improvise, variations at his salon recitals, sometimes even on themes suggested by his listeners. This selection is one of three sets of variations he wrote for cello and piano that are based on opera excerpts. Since this is a comic selection, Beethoven uses his famous sense of humor throughout.
Somehow Beethoven’s impish audience winks are rarely observed in modern performances, and so it was here. Broberg did his best to cheer up the performance, but Dormand remained serious throughout. Even the slow and sad variation in the minor mode is mock serioso and should be played musically wiping away a tear. It can be the funniest variation of all.
The program ended with Beethoven’s greatest set of variations; the finale to his ninth symphony, à la Chen.
Liszt set the model of making showy recital-worthy transcriptions of almost any piece of music that was popular at the time. He also made a transcription of the same finale. But at the time, public orchestral concerts were rare due to a lack of such consorts. Recordings were still generations away, so symphonic works were arranged for piano or, more frequently, piano four-hands, so that they could be performed more frequently.
(My childhood best friend and I frequently played such transcriptions, in order to better learn the repertoire.)
Liszt, of course, blew up his transcriptions into sometimes gaudy but sometimes sensitive show pieces to exhibit his flabbergasting and audience-swooning technical abilities. Chen’s effort has a lot more class than Liszt’s high-flying propensity for virtuosic excesses, but neither transcription of the final movement of Beethoven’s ninth is very successful.
This is completely due to Beethoven’s innovative use of a large chorus, with a set of singing a profound text combined with the piano’s inability to express words. Fredrich Schiller’s text touches on truly felt human emotions, from celebration to a sacred sense of wonder, none of which can ever come through, no matter how sensitively played, on the non-verbal and intrinsically percussive piano.
Even the wordless opening recitative sections in the celli have imaginary words. They are commentary, from brusque to appreciative, conveyed by the music gods, as Beethoven shows them the thematic materials from the other movements. Most conductors have their own idea of what they think are the sentiments expressed, but Chen played them without nuance, which made them sound trivial.
There are two other examples of the piano’s shortcomings expressing words. One is the passage in which the composer sets the voices at the extreme top of their range. He does this to create the sound of the whole world crying out to the heavens. The other that immediately comes to mind is the moving setting of the words Alle Menschen werden Brüder (“All people become brothers”).
Now, we know that Chen is a marvelous musician, a transcendentally talented technician, and that he enjoys making transcriptions of symphonic works. He introduced the work with personality and charm and played with technical brilliance. The audience loved it.
But it didn’t work for me.