To quote an opera by a rather different composer; “it is a curious story”. It’s the 1810s and in Edinburgh one George Thomson (not the one who became a European commissioner!) had a cunning plan to get various composers to do settings of Welsh, Scottish and Irish folksongs for the domestic amateur music making market. One of the composers he engaged was Beethoven (Haydn and Weber were also involved at various times) and a selection of the songs he produced are recorded on a recently issued Naxos disk.
Larry Beckwith of Confluence Concerts has been using the plague quarantine to listen to the Beethoven string quartets. He’s written up his thoughts on each piece and linked to his chosen recording on Youtube. Here’s what he had to say:
Beginning on Friday, March 20, 2020 and continuing for seventeen days in succession – as the city was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic – I turned to a project I intended to engage in at some point in 2020: listening to and reflecting upon the magnificent string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven, who was born 250 years ago. Those reflections can be found on the Confluence Concerts Blog at https://www.confluenceconcerts.ca/new-blog
It’s as thoughtful as anyone who knows Larry would expect and the blog post for each quartet includes links to the appropriate Youtube recording.
Toronto Summer music has announced the line up (most of it anyway) for this year’s edition on the theme “Beethoven Unleashed”; it being the 250th and so on. The theme has been interpreted to mean Beethoven; those who influenced him and those he influenced, which really doesn’t exclude anybody!
A comparatively rare excursion into purely instrumental music for me last night but the prospect of Sir Andrew Davis conducting Beethoven’s seventh symphony was irresistible.
The “garage piece” was the overture to King Stephen. Probably the most notable thing about this is that it was composed for a play by von Kotzebue who had just turned down Beethoven’s idea of writing the libretto for an opera on the life of Attila the Hun. It’s not a fabulous piece but it was efficiently despatched.
The TSO’s opening concert of the season at Roy Thomson Hall was quite boldly conceived. Basically hand the evening over to the powerhouse duo of soprano/conductor Barbara Hannigan and violinist/conductor John Storgårds and see what they come up with. It was an excitingly eclectic programme which produced some great performances but a sadly disappointing turn out.
The main stage concert for TSM at Koerner Hall last night was given by the Art of Time Ensemble with vocalists John Southworth and Sarah Slean. It’s my first encounter with Art of Time have been around for about ten years and specialise in cross genre collaborations inspired by their founder, pianist Andrew Burashko.
Last night was classical meets singer songwriter. There was an introductory piece by Christos Hatzis, some Schubert, plenty of Gershwin and lashings of Leonard Cohen plus much more (there was no set list and I didn’t take notes). It’s rather out of my usual zone but I enjoyed. Southworth is a really quirky vocalist, exemplified by a rather weird version of The Old Folks at Home; which needed to be weird! Slean is quite a performer; good voice, very funny, great mover. The ensemble was terrific across the board. I’m sold. There are lots of reasons to stretch the boundaries of classical performance. Larry Beckwith does it very well with his Confluence series. Here’s another example.
The late show, also at Koerner, featured Jonathan Crow, Katya Poplyansky, Minkyoung Lee and Allison Rich in a performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 12 in B-flat Major Op. 130 but with a twist. They played the full original version in which the Grosse Fuge Op. 133 forms the finale. So, basically, an hour long string quartet! It was very well done though I confess late Beethoven at 10.30 pm was straining the grey matter.
Photo credit: Dale Butteril
Wouldn’t that make a really good title for a pipe tune? But that aside Peter Oundjian is marking the end of his long run as Music Director of the TSO with a series of three Beethoven 9ths with Kirsten MacKinnon, Lauren Segal, Andrew Haji, Tyler Duncan and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir joining the TSO. I caught the second yesterday evening. It’s always a bit odd listening to a piece one has been familiar with for years. Will I hear or learn something new tonight? Will this performance probe the nature of the piece like I have never heard it probed? The Tafelmusik performance and recording of this piece did just that. I felt I was hearing it for the very first time. Alas, the only new thought I had last night was about how repetitive certain sections are. So there it was, an OK run through but no more. The soloists were fine, though perhaps possessing a weight of voice better suited to Tafelmusik at Koerner than the TSO in full cry in the unforgiving sonic deserts of Roy Thomson. I did think Ms. MacKinnon and the sopranos of the choir managed the fiendishly high setting of their part (probably a good job that Beethoven didn’t have to listen to complaints from his sopranos) very well. Nice work from the piccolo accompanying them too. Otherwise it was a bit unremarkable though that didn’t stop the obligatory idolatry from the RTH audience. Heaven knows what would happen if they ever heard a truly great performance…
Photo credit: Nick Wons
This afternoon I saw Gerry Finley and Julius Drake in recital at Koerner Hall. In other words, two supreme exponents of the art of lieder at the top of their game in a hall with near perfect acoustics. They performed Beethoven and Schubert settings of Goethe texts, some Tchaikovsky and some Rachmaninoff, which gave Julius ample opportunity to show off. They finished up with settings of folky things by Copland, Barber, Respighi and Britten. The last was The Crocodile; a very silly and funny piece I hadn’t heard before. The encore was by Healey Willans and Gerry gave a very nice plug for the Canadian Art Song Project. Insert standard list of adjectival phrases describing top notch singing and accompaniment. My humble scribing is not worthy.
The St. Lawrence String Quartet opened this year’s Toronto Summer Music Festival with a really interesting programme. They kicked off with the Haydn String Quartet No. 25 in C Major. This very much belied the idea that Haydn is a skilful but not especially inventive composer. It’s full of invention; especially rhythmic and really suited the intensely physical style of the St. Lawrences; especially the hyperkinetic first violin, Geoff Nuttall, who also contributed a rather extraordinary pair of socks to the evening’s festivities. Watching, too, is a different experience from listening and here pointed up the extent to which chamber music like this is a conversation between the players rather than a regimented or choreographed thing.
Yesterday at noon Ileana Montalbetti, currently appearing in the COC’s Götterdämmerung and pianist Rachel Andrist gave a recital in the RBA. It was five years to the day since they last performed together in that space. Then she was a promising young singer, now she comes over as a considerable interpretative artist. The voice is even bigger (and for a piano recital in the small and not very friendly to dramatic sopranos RBA(*) that was a bit of a challenge) but what’s notable is how much more drama and meaning there is in each number.