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Each year, renowned musicians who are faculty or guest artists at the Brevard Music Center participate in seven weeks of high-quality chamber music recitals. Some of us who revel in attending the performances lose track of the fact that the purpose of the Brevard Music Center is education. Many of the most engrossing faculty recitals are planned with an eye to educating the young student musicians, and only secondarily to entertaining the general public.
A prime example of recitals as education occurred this week when on two consecutive evenings William Preucil and Bruce Murray appeared at the Porter Center to perform all of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonatas for Piano and Violin. We have come to expect fine performances from Mr. Preucil (concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra and a guest artist at Brevard for several weeks during each of the past several years) and Mr. Murray (artistic administrator and dean of the Brevard Music Center). There were a few moments that might have signaled inadequate rehearsal, but overall we were not disappointed in these lengthy evenings, with six sonatas the first night and four the second.
The two concerts demonstrated the evolution of Beethoven’s compositional style. Nine of the ten Sonatas for Piano and Violin show his rapid progression in musical thought during the relatively short period between 1797 and 1803. Beethoven showed mastery of the classical style developed by Haydn and Mozart, but extended beyond those basics. Before Haydn’s time, sonatas for piano and violin often had the violin simply playing the treble line. Haydn began to give the violin independence and Mozart extended the practice. But in the nine sonatas that Beethoven published before 1804, he grew the complexity. While still often showing the piano as dominant, the violin part grew in importance.
The first three sonatas for piano and violin were published in 1797 in one volume, Opus 12. Like the Opus 2 sonatas for solo piano, Opus 12 reflects the heritage of Haydn. Certain gestures, such as the dramatic short rests in Opus 12 No. 2, remind one of Haydn. But the Adagio movement of Opus 12 No. 3 has descending duo passages that presage the romanticism of later Beethoven. His next published work was the Opus 13 “Pathetique” Sonata for Piano, which moved well beyond the example of Haydn. Preucil and Murray accepted applause for each sonata but did not retire to the wings. The result resembled a nine-movement suite, followed by the intermission. There were passages where the piano was too dominant, covering over the violin line, but both players were exemplary in their runs and the clarity of their playing.
Numbers four and five are contrasting sonatas. Opus 23 is in a minor key and is stormy. It is “winter in Germany.” As in several of the other sonatas, the performers omitted some repeats in order to keep the length of the program in check. The blistering pace of the opening Presto also saved time compared with recordings with which I am familiar.
Opus 24 is a well-known and joyous work, nicknamed the “Spring” Sonata. The thematic material that Beethoven uses in the Rondo of the “Spring” Sonata had previously shown up in the Rondo of Piano Sonata No. 11 (Opus 22), but is even “springier” with the violin tone added. I thought that the performers showed some signs of fatigue in this sonata. The piano trills and runs in the first movement were good but not so clean as before. Mr. Murray recovered for the short Scherzo, which was exemplary. Both players looked to be totally in command and enjoying the fourth movement Rondo.
In order to confine the program to two nights rather than three, Preucil and Murray played Opus 30 No. 1 as the finale of the Monday concert. By this time, Beethoven had published the “Moonlight” Piano Sonata, a work marked “quasi fantasia” to indicate its break with classical sonata form, and would follow with Opus 31, a set of piano sonatas that include the “Tempest” and the “Hunt.” His compositions were breaking out into romanticism. Opus 30 No.1 showed robust Beethoven, confident and complex, without a hint of Haydn.
The other two Opus 30 sonatas constituted the first half of the second concert on Tuesday. Opus 30 No. 2 is a serious minor-key centerpiece, my favorite in Opus 30. After what I hope was a good night’s sleep, the performers were in top form. The balance was outstanding. The clarity of the voicing was also. The violin obbligato in the Adagio was ethereal. The final notes played by the violin in the Adagio (sul ponticello followed by sul tasto) provided a sound that I only hope to hear again in Heaven.
Following Tuesday’s intermission, we had the justifiably renowned “Kreutzer” Sonata for Piano and Violin No. 9. Performance of the first movement included another sort of lesson for violin students in the audience: how to retain your aplomb when a pizzicato pluck causes your A string to release tension. Preucil signaled Murray, they stopped playing, retuned, had a discussion about where to restart, and began again. At some point in the Andante second movement, I could see the players relax totally. They were simply enjoying throwing phrases back and forth during the variations. Then continuing with a confidence arising from familiarity with the score, they adopted a blazingly fast tempo in the final movement.
Eight years later, Beethoven added his Sonata for Piano and Violin No. 10, Opus 96. This arrived after his highly programmatic “Les Adieux” Piano Sonata, and in some ways presages the late piano sonatas. Introspective, with swaths of color, this is a far cry from the early sonatas. Comparing Opus 96 to Opus 12 is like comparing Henry James’s The Ambassadors with his Roderick Hudson. The same master is at work, but he has learned a great deal in the intervening years and developed a mature confidence.
So on two long programs, Messrs. Preucil and Murray played them all, providing an exceptional educational experience to the Brevard Music Center piano and violin students while providing two evenings of listening pleasure to devotees of the finest in chamber music playing. The Porter Center was filled close to capacity, and even the page-turner received enthusiastic applause.