Beethoven: Seven Variations on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” after Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Wo0 46
Beethoven: Cello Sonata No. 4 in C Major
Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 10 in G Major
Beethoven: Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 1, No. 3
This year being the 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven, it was pretty inevitable that classical music venues all around the world would pull all the stops for grand (and smaller) celebrations. Among the first in line unsurprisingly stands Carnegie Hall in New York City, which will be presenting an impressive range of works from the master’s seemingly bottomless œuvre in the next few months.
To get my personal Beethoven festival going, I could not have imagined better company than three of the biggest stars in classical music today, namely pianist Emmanuel Ax, violinist Leonidas Kavakos and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Together, they’re headlining no fewer than three all-Beethoven concerts this week, and since I quickly got tired of torturing myself trying to decide which one(s) to attend, I ended up buying tickets for all three because I could.
On Wednesday evening I was very excited not only because I was about to spend some high-quality time with those three superlative musicians during their first performance of the mini-series, but also because this was the start of a purposefully planned, extravagant but still too short, four-day weekend for me.
And all was going swimmingly in the packed Stern Auditorium where several rows of seats had been added on the stage (sky-high demand oblige) until a middle-aged man came to sit in the aisle seat next to me and brought with him a foul odor. It turned out that the culprit was the otherwise well-behaved dog accompanying him. Since the guy was obviously not blind, I figured that the dog was probably one of those so-called “emotional support animals” that have been popping up everywhere lately. (Can’t you just take some Xanax already?)
As if the usual prospect of the typical disturbances from a packed audience and the new prospect of the coronavirus possibly floating around were not enough, I now had to deal with a stinky dog. But it was getting too late to do much about it and I basically had to breathe through my mouth during the first half of the program, secretly envying the quick-thinking young man sitting nearby who had bailed out promptly.
As a matter of fact, I got my own emotional support from Emmanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma, who semi-diffused the situation by kicking off the performance with Beethoven’s totally engaging Seven Variations on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” after Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. Covering a wide range of moods without losing their inherent melodic power, this lovely opening act was what I needed.
The two long-time friends and colleagues stuck around for a slightly longer piece with Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 4, which is not only a genuinely compelling score in its own right, but also paved the way for the composer to go on to even bigger and better things.
Next, Yo-Yo Ma let Leonidas Kavakos take over string duties for Beethoven’s four-movement Violin Sonata No. 10, which also happens to be the last one he ever composed. The highlight of the charming work was undisputedly the stunning Adagio espressivo, an unabashedly lyrical and just plain beautiful interlude that transitioned seamlessly into the much more agitated Scherzo.
That said, as much as I was enjoying the music, I could not wait for the intermission to get out of the gross, not to mention unsanitary, predicament I had unwittingly found myself in. After checking in with an usher, and then their captain, I eventually found an unoccupied seat at the opposite side of the balcony, as far as could be from the stench.
From my new perch, I was at last able to fully get into the Beethovian groove without any further distractions. While its uncharacteristic four-movement format and overall complexity can be seen as an avowed ambition to push the genre’s boundaries, the Piano Trio in C Minor also stands out for its irresistible mix of turbulence, darkness and buoyancy, which the three musicians superbly brought to life.
Since the program was all-Beethoven, an encore by him seemed unavoidable. But it was in fact avoided, as the three colleagues rewarded our long and thunderous ovation with (Surprise!) Schubert and the Andante un poco mosso from his Piano Trio No. 1. All serene beauty and gently swaying rhythms except for a brief stormy episode, this stunning parting gift almost managed to eclipse all the wonders of the official program. I came for Ludwig, but I left with Franz.
One down. Two more to go.