Chamber Music, Early Music Review

HIP: Mozart & Co.

March 19, 2003 - Durham, NC:

Historically-informed performances of music by Mozart and several of his contemporaries were given - on "original" instruments, of course - in the Nelson Music Room at Duke on the evening of March 19. Interest centered on fortepianist Tom Beghin, of UCLA, currently finishing up a year at the National Humanities Center in RTP. He brought his keyboard, by Chris Maene ( [inactive 5/04]), with him; it is, he noted during brief remarks, built on a Viennese model. Beghin is one of Malcolm Bilson's Boys (there are also Bilson Gals), and he played Beethoven in the Triangle a while back, before Bilson & Co. took their complete run of the sonatas to New York and Europe, where they were recorded. At the risk of drawing angry letters from readers who will say it has nothing to do with the performance (the late pianist and critic Donald Peery is surely rolling over right about now...), I was amused that Beghin wore the traditional "Bilson shirt," ownership of which must, I'm thinking, be a prerequisite for admission to Cornell's keyboard division, where Beghin (and UNCG's Andrew Willis, among others) studied. The other artists were oboist Geoffrey Burgess, violinist Elizabeth Field, violist Peter Bucknell, and cellist Stephanie Vial. Only Bucknell hasn't undertaken formal study at Cornell; his degrees are from SUNY Stony Brook and Melbourne University, and he's currently teaching at SUNY Potsdam. Field's and Vial's names will be familiar to our readers; they are involved with music programs at Duke, where Burgess also teaches.

The program, originally billed as "A concert of music by Mozart and two of his contemporaries on period instruments," underwent some changes following its first announcement, resulting in the substitution of keyboard music by C.P.E. Bach for Haydn's Arietta con 12 variazioni (which we'd like to hear Beghin play on another occasion) and broadening the event from "two" to "three of [Mozart's] contemporaries." It was, for the most part, a resounding success - if "resounding" is the operative word.

Things got underway with a Quartet in B Flat for oboe and strings, by Johann Christian Bach, but of uncertain provenance. It is a strange thing, in two movements; at Duke, the balances often seemed amiss, and there were also, at the outset, some problems with intonation and ensemble, although things came together reasonably quickly. There were no program notes, which in this instance strikes me as even more outrageous than usual, given that Duke is a bastion of music scholarship at one of our leading institutions of higher learning. Aside from Beghin's comments just before his CPEB selections, not a word was said. And although the J.C. Bach Quartet has been recorded by The Oboist (Holliger) (and perhaps others), it's not exactly everyday fare. Is it even a legitimate product of the composer? New Grove doesn't seem to include it in its listings. Dr. Burgess, who graciously filled in some gaps for CVNC after the fact, reports that the only (other) B-Flat Quartet by JCB is from his Op. 8, published c.1770 and listed as T306. Holliger's recording is said to be an arrangement of an E Major Sonata, which Burgess reports is now attributed to Haydn. Who knows? Notes might have helped those in attendance!

Haydn's piano trios are too rarely heard, and the one given on this occasion, No. 11, in A-Flat, H.XV:14 (1790, and apparently published as "Sonata" vice "Trio"), makes one regret that it and the other 29 or so of them don't turn up more often. During the J.C. Bach piece, the ears of the audience members (or of this listener, at least) had readjusted to the softer, gentler, less aggressive sound conveyed by these softer, gentler instruments, and the results were consistently impressive, in a decidedly underwhelming sort of way (by which we mean to convey praise, not criticism). Beghin often came close to dazzling his hearers with his precision and the clarity he projected. The inner voices were constantly apparent, and not only in the fortepiano part but also from the strings. If there was magic in Nelson on this occasion, this was it.

Part two began with four little C.P.E. Bach "Character Pieces," sound portraits of friends and acquaintances, composed 1754-5. The outer two were bold, dramatic vignettes that surely caught the attention of contemporaneous listeners, while the intervening numbers were soft-spoken and restrained, as if they might better have been realized on a harpsichord.

The grand finale was the so-called "Gran-Partita" of Mozart, the famous Serenade No. 10 (1781 or 1781-4), for thirteen wind instruments (or, if you prefer, twelve winds and a doublebass). As mainstreamers know, this is a substantial work; at Duke it was given in a reduced albeit unshortened version, prepared by C.F.G. Schwencke, whose dates were in the program but whose bio wasn't. C.P.E. Bach set up Schwencke's studies in Berlin, and he was fairly well known as a composer and publisher, too, issuing (among other things) early editions (if perhaps not the first ones) of J.S. Bach's Well-tempered Clavier and the Mass in B Minor and of Handel's Messiah . Burgess reports that the publication date of this version of the Serenade - for piano, oboe and strings (so all five artists got to play together at the end) - is c.1805; and indeed it is longer than usual, for it includes a third trio in the second minuet, a trio that may or may not have been meant for this piece. The arrangement works pretty well, although some of the balance problems involving the evening's lone wind instrument resurfaced here - it's sort of like mixing oil and water, I suppose - so, although it was grandly played throughout, the oboe seemed unduly prominent at times. Overall, however, the performance had a lot going for it, and it was definitely a treat to hear the familiar work in this guise. There was plenty for all the players to do, and each had his (or her) several moments in the sun, too.

When all was said and done, then, the concert was quite wonderful. The program provided a refreshing trip back in time to an entirely different world - and it kept us from knowing, till after 10 p.m., that our own world is now beset with war.

Beghin has a big presentation coming up April 4, at the NHC, when he will give a program centering on some of the subjects of his research this year, Haydn's Marie Esterházy sonatas. See our calendar for details. He's a remarkable artist and scholar whose playing, while informed by his studies, is consistently fresh and vibrant (within the context of his subtle instrument, of course).