Beethoven Boyled Down...

Mar 3, 2004

The Bottom Line The Beethoven Society strikes gold with the music but knocks itself out at the buffet.

Germany Embassy / The Beethoven Society of America
Monday, March 01, 2004

Late Bloom for Beethoven

On Monday January 26th, an ambitious program of music was supposed to be presented at the German embassy as part of the Monday concert series of the Beethoven Society of America. A blizzard blew the concert into March and one of the nicest days of the year so far. A mild evening invited to be put to good use. I can’t imagine much better a use than to attend the concert that Emil Chudnovsky (violin) and Michael Sheppard (piano) gave.

I was a bit worried after my last concert experience at the German embassy had been sub-par on every level and contrasted painfully to the lovingly arranged and excellent events at the Austrian embassy. But the program looked promising. Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata in A-major, op.47 – a gargantuan work – was to be followed by the shorter but significant Brahms Sonata in d-minor. The program announces Sonata op.109 but I have the nagging suspicion it might just be op.108. It isn't the only typo on the extraordinarily flimsy Program.

After the intermission there were “Kreutzer Concert Variations” by some temporary composer and a slew of entertaining war-horses – among them Ravel’s Tzigane and Pablo de Sarasate’s Gypsy Airs.

The concert was about to start when the dapper looking chap with plateau shoes and coke-bottle glasses whom I had seen smoking outside, program in hand, turned out to be Emil Chudnovsky. It doesn’t go to show anything, really – but I feel like that should have taught me some lesson.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” begins. Michael Sheppard, whom I would have liked to talk about a bit in detail (alas, the promised Bio was not forthcoming), gets to work on the Piano. From the very first chord on it comes across as muscular and uninhibited. Short, dry and with a no-nonsense approach he plays so as to let the violin see to make itself heard... “we care not”. Emil Chudnovsky sounds determined and lyrical in the opening bars that sound like Beethoven but feel like Bach. It establishes the tone right away as enthralling Beethoven both unfailingly exciting and unabashedly energetic.

Some repeats seemed to have been omitted – but if they were not, the first half of the program alone would go on for well over an hour. During the second movement, Andante con variazioni I would have wished for a bit more sensuality in Michael Sheppard’s playing. I wonder if he was himself entirely convinced of the movement – but the result was at any rate better than any sappy and winsomely flat approach which is all too often the alternative.

The power of performance has a simplistic but easy measure: if the Violinist’s bow does not suffer (as it did with Mr. Chudnovsky), the performance was likely lacking. The Beethoven here was everything but. It ended easily as exiting as it started and was most warmly welcomed by the Audience in the Auditorium of the German Embassy. While the Auditorium has the charm of a 60’s gym, the acoustics are actually quite good.

(It is probably worth reminding yourself of the fact that this piece (or any other) was likely never performed as well during Beethoven’s lifetime. Short of individuals like Franz Liszt and Joseph Joachim (and even that’s anyone’s guess) performers simply didn’t have the technical prowess that most conservatory graduates possess these days.)

Usually introducing every piece with a few words, Emil Chudnovsky made reference to the fact that there was “rather a lot of music” on the program and, hoping that the ensuing Brahms would speak for himself, that the fewer words were to be said, the better.

The way he and Michael Sheppard dove into the Brahms sonata (1888) proved this assumption right from the get-go. Deft and with a perfectly appropriate “take no prisoner” approach! The famous Adagio line was somber rather than wallowing in emotion. No unnecessary lingering on notes and befitting the more energetic reprise of the theme that makes nonsense of an all-too-soft approach the first time around anyway.

Un poco presto e con sentimento, the third movement is, to its advantage be it said, a good deal sooner presto than it ever gets sentimento. The Finale Presto agitato then is aptly wistful, witty, boasting and stormy. The bow suffered more, but the sound afforded great effect and entertainment.

Intermission followed enthusiastic applause and gives me time to read up on who that contemporary composer, Benjamin C.S. Boyle might just be. I already know that he is in the audience and looks audaciously young. The looks aren’t deceiving – Mr. Boyle is some very upsettingly 24 years young! Upsetting of course only to me and only because deep within me boils the gall of insane jealousy. But then, I haven’t heard his “Kreutzer” Concert Variations yet – it could still turn out to be pleasingly hackneyed and deliciously atrocious.

Unfortunately I am disappointed. The piece, adapting the Beethoven theme for his sonata as the first few bars, immediately makes an important point: Better well copied than ill created. After the introduction of the famous theme, the piece fits its variations out with a sumptuous, tamely modernist tint. Not terribly novel as a sound but utterly pleasing! Never really too challenging for the crowd some of which have already complained about how little of Ludwig van Beethoven was on the program (“Why do they call it the Beethoven society then”), it is solidly within the musical vernacular palatable to people who usually ‘draw the line’ at late Beethoven. Yet it is also fresh enough to bring an enjoyable breeze into a program stuffed with warhorses. In some moments it is tempting to attest the “Kreutzer” Concert Variations an energy not unlike, say, Bela Bartók’s 4th String Quartet. (A recent performance of that masterpiece by the Takacs Quartet at the Freer Gallery still fresh on my mind.)

If I hold myself back in enjoying the work unabashedly it is perhaps because I do not trust it quite yet. I would love to hear more of Mr. Boyle’s work to see if substance is a regular part of it. The Washington Times’ kind words about Mr. Boyle quoted in the program notes are of little help because the reviewer cannot resist tacking it unto his or her vitriolic anti-modernist agenda. Mr. Boyle “seems somehow to have escaped academia’s toxic post-modernist flotsam....” I can’t stand the message but I love the great use of the word ‘flotsam’! The teachers’ list of Boyle, meanwhile, reads like a veritable who’s who of modern composers. Lukas Foss, David del Tredici, Nocholas Maw, Christopher Theofanidis etc. are household names among the hard core of classical music lovers.

This short work then, not surprisingly, is rather complementary to the earlier Beethoven. If it finds a few friends besides Emil Israel Chudnovsky who collaborated with Boyle in the works’ creation, I should like to hear it pop up in public performances. Especially for stuffy programs it is like opening the windows for a few moments. If I am not mistaken, the performance was its’ premiere. (I should like to make that sound a bit more bombastic: it likely was the World Premiere!)

After this work, it was all downhill for me and pure delight for most of the rest of the audience. Saint-Saëns was a quaint and sweet thereafter with his Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. Stripped of its orchestral part it dabbles along nicely – with plenty effects for Mr. Chudnovsky to show off his impressive skills on the fiddle. After the taxing first half, this was likely a pleasantly relaxing fare. Well, for Mr. Sheppard at any rate. Mr. Chudnosvky might beg to differ after the Sarasate Gypsy Airs and Ravel’s Tzigane – even if he played them from memory.

About Fritz Kreisler’s Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta isn’t much to say other than that its not particularly Viennese, only moderately rhapsodical and mostly devoid of fantasy. Ear candy with a sticky aftertaste. Quaint and made to please. The bow lost more hairs. So did I.

Zigeunerweisen – Sarasate’s famous Violinist’s showcase – without the orchestra (who needs it, anyway) was indeed more “Cognac” (Chudnovsky’s words) than a mean ‘Firewater’ (my expectations). Splendidly done, for sure, but lacking in that pure testosterone and aggression that I like to hear in this piece. Tonight it was not so much a fierce fireball crashing down but rather a clown having a jolly good time and bumbling about. The crowd, surely, loved it – just as they had loved the Kreisler terribly much.

Tzigane finally (still no Orchestra but much in need of one) was a little lean and bare. Some 60 bars or so of amiable solo effort on Mr. Chudnovsky’s part gave Mr. Sheppard some time to relax before the none-too-challenging piano accompaniment entered the scene. Sheppard gets to race around on the keyboard for a bit... and then soon enough this somewhat anticlimactic end-piece to a most astounding and fabulous evening was over. The standing ovations and Bravo’s were forthcoming in force. Mine somewhere among them.

Chudnovsky and Sheppard then add an encore to the already full program to appease the audiences’ somewhat relentless applause. I still think that German labor laws likely forbid the amount of work put in by the young artists... but such concerns were not on the mind of anyone else. Any such laws would only have protected my ears from Jenö Hubay’s Hejre Kati op.32. Another gypsy pastiche with familiar tricks and familiar sounds by a (judging by this work, at any rate) justly unfamiliar composer. Alas it fits the evening and was easy enough on the ears. A cutesy interaction between pianist and violinist (the latter playing an endless trill until the former turned the page for him) sends a collective chuckle through the audience.

So, the concert was great. Everyone with the urge to tell the performers had the chance to do so at the reception afterwards. Messrs. Boyle, Chudnovsky and Sheppard allowed anyone to bother them. What bothered me, meanwhile, was the miserly reception. I know now that the embassy, just host to the event, not organizer, can’t be blamed for a skimpy cheese and cold cut buffet with crackers. The wine that was somewhere between drinkable (at least a German white) and downright awful (red).

“How can anyone possibly be so petty and complain about the less-than-stellar cheese after a great concert...” you might ask. True, it seems negligible – but then it somehow is part of the experience. And especially after a great concert, especially at an embassy (no matter what the logistical details) it is not far fetched to expect something with more thought. It is bad enough that the reception cannot take place in the representative reception hall because September 11th aftershocks somehow disallow the use of it for the purpose of which it was built. Add cheap cheese and cheaper wine to that small grievance and you, too, would leave with an unnecessary bad aftertaste.

To say this impression does not or will not stick would be a lie. But hopefully it cannot tarnish the outstanding evening that had been brought to everyone courtesy of the two young artists and the (upsettingly) young composer and the Beethoven Society.♫

The Beethoven Society of America can be visited on the Web at

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