February 04, 2010


Beethoven: Egmont—Incidental Music; Marches Nos. 1 and 2; Ah! Perfido. Madeleine Pierard, soprano; Claus Obalski, narrator; New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Judd. Naxos. $8.99.

Beethoven and Mendelssohn: Organ Works. Wolfgang Kleber, organ. Genuin. $18.99.

     The music of Beethoven is so often played – indeed, so often over-played – that it is natural to assume that most listeners have heard just about everything he wrote. But this is far from the case: among the composer’s 100-plus opus numbers and many additional unnumbered works (WoO), there are quite a few that are performed very rarely indeed. This is a real shame, because the less-known works often show sides of Beethoven that the better-known ones do not. There is, for example, more to Beethoven the vocal composer than the ninth symphony, Fidelio, the Missa Solemnis and the Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra – the last of these itself being a rarity until a couple of decades ago, when its forward-looking structure and musical interest finally became more widely apparent. Take Beethoven’s music for Goethe’s tragedy, Egmont, for example. The Egmont Overture is a marvelously evocative piece that shows up frequently in the concert hall and in recorded form. But Beethoven also wrote a series of entr’actes and vocal works for Egmont, and if none of them is at the level of the overture (which encapsulates the entire drama in less than 10 minutes), the same may be said of Fidelio and the Leonore Overture No. 3 – a fact that does not render the opera any less interesting. James Judd offers a nuanced, balanced and finely proportioned reading of the Egmont incidental music, with Madeleine Pierard highly affecting in the role of the doomed Clärchen (whose death music, which is wholly instrumental, is especially effective) and Claus Obalski presenting strong narration in an extended Melodrama that occurs in the play’s final act. True, the music is less effective in the form given here than in the context of Goethe’s entire play; but the same can be said, for instance, of Grieg’s music for Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, and that has not prevented Grieg’s miniatures from achieving a concert-hall life of their own. Similarly, Beethoven’s Egmont is worth knowing for more than its overture, even if that opening piece remains the best music associated with the play. Judd complements the Egmont music of 1810 with two marches in F major, from 1809 and 1810, which are slight but pleasant enough, and with the extended concert aria Ah! Perfido – which dates to 1795-6 and fits rather uneasily with the rest of this CD from a thematic standpoint, although it certainly gives Pierard an excellent additional opportunity to display her fine soprano.

     Even less known than Egmont are Beethoven’s Three Pieces for Mechanical Organ, which Wolfgang Kleber includes on a new Beethoven/Mendelssohn CD. These works, like the better-known (but also infrequently played) Wellington’s Victory, are evidence of Beethoven’s fascination with new ways of making music. The first of them, an Adagio, shows that Beethoven expected expressiveness even from mechanical instruments. Also heard on this CD is another Beethoven rarity: Two Preludes through All the Major Keys, op. 39. Playable on either organ or piano, these works start in C and pass throughout the major keys to return to C at the end – evidence of the strong formal underpinnings of Beethoven’s music, which was later to move so far in new directions.

     Mendelssohn moved in new directions, too, and the balance of Kleber’s excellently played CD focuses on some of his less-known works: Three Preludes and Fugues, op. 37, and two of the six sonatas from op. 65 – No. 1 in F minor and No. 5 in D major. Op. 37 finds Mendelssohn in tribute-to-Bach mode – it dates to the same period in the 1830s as op. 35, the Six Preludes and Fugues for piano, written in homage to The Well-Tempered Clavier. The rather strict fugues in op. 37 stand in contrast to the freer preludes, which are more expressive. As for the op. 65 sonatas, they are late Mendelssohn works, dating to 1844-5, and explore a variety of movement sequences as well as various emotions. Indeed, it would be good to hear all six of these sonatas performed by Kleber, who handles the two here with great sensitivity and fine balance between formal structure and emotive communication. These works do not sound much like the light and spirited Mendelssohn with whom most listeners are familiar – and, as a result, they broaden the understanding of their composer’s abilities, concerns and very wide-ranging musical interests.

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