Tackling Beethoven's hopeless case

Wed, Feb 27, 2013, 00:00

Publishing deals have been a part of the music industry for centuries: just ask Beethoven

Composers are like everyone else. They can be as venal, mercenary, greedy or cheating as the next person. Let’s begin with Muzio Clementi. No, not because of the way he exploited Irish wunderkind John Field to demonstrate the pianos that he sold, but because of his dealings as a music publisher with Beethoven.

Clementi visited Vienna in 1807, and a letter he wrote back to his business partner in London on April 22nd gives a flavour of his approach. “By a little management and without committing myself, I have at last made a compleat conquest of that haughty beauty, Beethoven, who first began at public places to grin and coquet with me, which of course I took care not to discourage; then slid into familiar chat, till meeting him by chance one day in the street – ‘Where do you lodge?’ says he; ‘I have not seen you this long while’ – upon which I gave him my address. Two days after I found on my table his card brought by himself, from the maid’s description of his lovely form. This will do, thought I. Three days after that he calls again, and finds me at home. Conceive then the mutual ecstasy of such a meeting! I took pretty good care to improve it to our house’s advantage.”

In fairness, his deal with Beethoven was anything but mean. The great man was to receive the substantial amount of £200 for three quartets (the Rasumovsky Quartets), a symphony (the Fourth), an overture (Coriolan), a piano concerto (the Fourth), and his only violin concerto, and was also to produce a new version of that work as a piano concerto avec des notes additionelles, as the contract drawn up in French put it. Clementi was buying the rights for “British Dominions” only. Beethoven could sell the rights separately in France and Germany, and expressed the hope that the sales would enable him “to achieve the dignity of a true artist while still young”.

The style of the solo writing in the violin concerto was never going to be easily adapted for the piano. A lot of it is spare and high-lying, the material as basic as you could imagine, but, in the hands of Beethoven, it produces music that is astonishingly profound. The piano in its higher register has no way of easily emulating the sustaining power of the violin.

Yet, in spite of what he clearly regarded as the generous deal with Clementi, Beethoven seems to have taken the minimum of trouble in attempting to preserve the character of the original in rewriting the solo violin part for piano. It’s been speculated that he didn’t even bother to do it himself, and may have farmed it out as a piece of hackwork.

With one major exception, everything is perfunctory. That exception is a dramatic new first-movement cadenza in which the soloist is joined by the timpani. But it’s in such a different style it sounds vaguely surreal, like an intrusion from another work entirely.

Sunday’s performance of the piano version by Finghin Collins served only to show what a hopeless case it is. The RTÉ NSO was on alert form under Jonathan Cohen. Collins did his damndest to shape the solo lines with musicianly skill. But it was only the notes which survived, not the original character of the music. The concert’s other work, Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, was delivered with sprightly classical spirit and provided musical pleasure of an altogether higher order.

From Bizet to ballet

If Beethoven couldn’t deliver the goods for a financially lucrative arrangement of one of his greatest concertos, what, then, might you expect of a 20th-century Russian composer’s project to turn music from Bizet’s Carmen into ballet, after that project had been turned down by Shostakovich (who feared he wouldn’t be up to it) and Khachaturian (who declared himself too busy)? The composer in question, Rodion Shchedrin, was actually doing a favour for his wife, the ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, who had set her heart on dancing the role of Carmen. Shchedrin adapted and updated Bizet with such success that his 1967 Carmen Suite has become his most popular work.

The adaptation, which also contains snippets from L’Arlésienne and La Jolie Fille de Perth, is for an orchestra of strings and percussion. It’s playful, deft, witty, sure-footed, and praise from on high was immediate.

Shostakovich complimented Shchedrin by telling him that handling well-known melodies so felicitously was even more difficult than writing a successful work of one’s own. Soviet officialdom demurred, and cancelled the second performance. Too much sex, they thought. But Shostakovich used his leverage and helped to have the ballet reinstated. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Irish Chamber Orchestra, under Gábor Takács-Nagy, its new musically dynamic “principal artistic partner/conductor”, performed the Bizet a la Shchedrin at the RDS on Saturday. The players conveyed the music’s every nuance with colourful allure, snapped its rhythms with bracing energy, and turned the whole work into a real tour de force. They did this in spite of the disparity between the 70 string players Shchedrin originally wrote for and the mere 18 that were on the stage of the RDS – in the double bass section the line-up was actually light for the task in hand by a factor of 10.

The orchestra’s music-making was a pure delight in the two 18th-century symphonies they performed before the interval, one light (Mozart’s No 15), one furrowed and earnest (Haydn’s No 44, nicknamed the Mourning), and both played with an intensity of moment-by-moment focus that was totally gripping.

The passion of César Franck

The late-flowering César Franck wrote some of the most significant music that came out of France in the second half of the 19th-century. His organ works, Symphony in D minor, Violin Sonata and Piano Quintet, written mostly in an earnest, heavy-duty style, are all staples of the repertoire.

But even composers of earnest, heavy duty works have sex lives, and the inspiration behind the composer’s Piano Quintet is said to have been his infatuation with Augusta Holmès, a much younger French composer of Irish parentage, who seems to have had a talent for hype and myth-making that would serve her well if she found herself in the media jungle of the 21st century.

Whatever the truth behind the gossip about Franck and Holmès, Franck’s wife seems to have been sure that the passion expressed in her husband’s Piano Quintet was not about her. She loathed the piece.

It featured at the NCH on Wednesday, in the first concert of Hugh Tinney’s new European Masterworks series. Tinney presided at the piano with the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet, in a performance where the passion was projected with a kind of distanced intellectual fire. And, in the musical world we live in, it’s astonishingly easy to hear the opening of the work’s slow movement as a precursor to the minimalism of the late 20th-century. There’s a thesis for an enterprising student: César Franck and Philip Glass.

In-your-face music

The week’s two NCH concerts by symphony orchestras could hardly have been more different. On Monday, the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra under Jacek Kaspszyk were forceful, lush, in your face, making Bernstein’s Candide Overture sound as though it might have been written by Shostakovich, Schubert’s Great C major Symphony sound glutinous, and often overpowering the soloist Agata Szymczewska in Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto.

On Friday, the RTÉ NSO under Alan Buribayev was altogether leaner and more lucid, though in Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony there were hump-backed bridge effects of rubato that did the work no favours.

The performance of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto was cut from altogether finer cloth. The soloist Alban Gerhardt was effortlessly commanding, and with Buribayev a sympathetic partner, got through the piece without, as it were, ever having to raise his voice unnecessarily. This was an extraordinary achievement in a big-boned concerto that is usually overloaded with stress and effort.