Chamber Music Review Print



A Bouquet of Off-Beat Beethoven at WFU

March 28, 2004 - Winston-Salem, NC:


Beethoven is one of the biggies, of course, but that doesn't mean all his music is equally well known. In Wake Forest University's strangely-constructed Brendle Recital Hall, where a few rows are roughly flat and the rest rake sharply upward, like UNC's Hanes Auditorium and NCSU's Stewart Theatre, a batch of the University's faculty members (and a few students) gave a concert of some of the master's infrequently heard pieces or, more properly, pieces that are not often heard they way they were given on this occasion. The event was something like Music 101 in that it began with remarks and visuals. (When was the last time you heard "May I have the next slide, please?" at a concert?) It's our view that general remarks like those made by violinist David B. Levy are more helpful, long term, when folded into program notes that listeners can take home and savor after the fact, and since the eight-page programs (printed, not copied) had lots of white space in them, it might have made sense to have compressed the song texts and included the notes, too.

The "Unheard Beethoven" concert began with an attractive performance of the Horn Sonata, Op. 17. It's not exactly unheard, but live performances in places other than hothouses for horn players are admittedly rare. Still, it's been known to music lovers via records for a long time - Dennis Brain's first recording was made in 1944 - and it's been taken up by practitioners of other instruments, including bassoon and double bass, too. In Winston-Salem, it was played by Robert Campbell and pianist Peter Kairoff, and they did it quite nicely. 'Tis said that the horn is among the toughest and balkiest of all instruments, but Campbell's behaved like an obedient and very well managed child. It was a delight to experience this score in concert for the first time (if memory serves) since the '60s, in Chapel Hill.

The work that ended the program was the very well-known Seventh Symphony, but it was given in a new (to me) version by Hummel for piano, violin, flute and cello, played by Marlene Hoirup, Jacqui Carrasco, Kathryn Levy, and Selina Carter, respectively. David Levy didn't mention that arrangements like this one, of which there were literally hundreds, were popular because people actually made music back then - learning to play something was considered part of a basic education - and because big orchestra concerts were rare, and because there were no recordings or broadcasts. Hummel's arrangement was typical - several of these things have been recorded - but it proved, in the long haul, too much of a diminishment of a good thing, because there is so much less variety in all the repetitions than an orchestra can provide. It didn't help that some of the playing, and especially that of the cellist, was so patently dull as to serve as a cure for insomnia. Overall, brisker tempi and more incisive playing from all might have made this arrangement more than the academic exercise that, alas, it turned out to be.

Between the Sonata and the Symphony came a group of folksong arrangements by Beethoven that looked quite promising on paper but that were done in irrevocably by one of the strangest lashups we've yet encountered at any institution of higher learning. There was a modern concert grand only six feet away, but the accompanying forces used a handsome copy (by Rodney J. Regier) of a 1790 Andreas Streicher fortepiano, and the strings were high-tech modern instruments that would have overpowered the keyboard, so a microphone was poked into the piano, and its sound emanated from speakers on both sides of the stage, producing an out-of-body effect with electronic overtones that sabotaged the group from the outset. That said, it was a treat to hear soprano Teresa Radomski sing four of Beethoven's charming settings (2 Welsh, 1 British, and 1 Scottish), accompanied by Kairoff, violinist David Levy, and cellist Carter (whose lack of involvement in the music was apparent throughout), and an even rarer treat to hear Welsh and British duets, for which the soprano was joined by mezzo-soprano Lorraine DiSimone. The grand finale of this group was not particularly grand, thanks to some rough and ready singing from two tenors and two baritones who joined the others in "Save Me from the Grave and Wise," WoO 154/8. The ensemble sang "Hence with wisdom, dull and drear" and "welcome folly," so it was perhaps a fitting conclusion for the first part of this fascinating but ultimately misguided program.