SMP June 13- Beethoven vs Beethoven and Acoustics vs Toilets

Surrey Mozart Players

Saturday, June 13 2009

Holy Trinity Church

Guildford

Beethoven- Leonore Overture no. 2

Ginasterra- Harp Concerto

Victoria Davies, harp

Schumann- Symphony no. 4 in D minor (final version)

What can I say- citizens of Guildford, get off your butts and come to this concert.

SMP generally pack our regular venue (the Electric Theatre), but the last time we played at the gorgeous Holy Trinity Church in downtown Guildford we had a somewhat pitiful audience in spite of a great program. Not surprising, then, that ticket sales are a little slow so far this week. I know the seats are more comfortable at the Electric, the toilets are bigger and the bar is first rate, but Holy Trinity has absolutely fab acoustics, and there will be wine at the interval.

It is, in my opinion (!), a rather stupendous and interesting program. Book-ending the concert are two works that are examples of their creators penchants for revision. Leonore no. 2 is the first (gotta like that- none of the numbers are correct. Leonore 2 is first, Leonore 3 2nd, Leonore 1 thrid but never performed in LvB’s lifetime and Fidelio 4th) of the four overtures he wrote for his opera Fidelio, while Schumann 4, the 2nd   and 5th of his four and a half symphonies (he called the Overture, Scherzo and Finale a “symphonette”) is the result of a significant reworking of the original version of the symphony from about a decade earlier. (In Schumann’s case, the 1st Symphony did come first, but the 2nd was the 3rd, the 3rd was the fourth and the 4th the second and the fifth).

Of course, Leonore no. 3 is Beethoven’s most popular overture, and possibly the most perfect overture in the literature. A flawlessly constructed dramatic tone poem it tells the entire story of the opera so well that it slightly makes the opera superfluous. I’ve long since lost track of how many times I’ve played, conducted and heard it. Leonore no. 2, on the other hand, I’ve heard in performance only once- a bizarrely disengaged and directionless performance by one of the great London orchestras under a well-known youngish American conductor. However, I’d looked at the score many times, and in spite of that spectacularly unsuccessful hearing, I’ve been anxious to do the piece for many years.

Last night, we read it for the first time. It is, quite simply, staggering music. Awe inspiringly ambitious.  What more perfect reminder could one have of the fact that most of what you read about music (including, I fear, most of what you find at Vftp) is worthless crap, than the fact that his piece is often held up as a “failure.” The piece was only a failure as an overture to an opera- it is even grander and more complex than Leonore 3, and simply was too big, too dramatic, to daring to serve as a good opener and lead in to the first scene of the opera. It is a tone poem, not an overture.

In many ways, it is a more experimental work than Leonore 3, and it is certainly harder. Leonore 3 is more taut- notice that Beethoven significantly tightens everything up, from the very first bars of the piece, which he cuts in the revision. In addition to clarifying some orchestral textures, and simplifying some technical and rhythmic difficulties, Beethoven also seems to have re-thought some aspects of performance. The coda of Leonore 3 is marked Presto. The coda of Leonore 2 starts with the same scurrying eighth notes, but Beethoven saves the Presto for later (and doesn’t really tell us how to get there). It does beg the question- if Beethoven thought that music worked better at Presto, should one do all of it Presto regardless of what he wrote.

It is interesting- should we take into account a composers thoughts in a revision when performing an earlier version of a work? I heard a performance this year of Mahler’s Totenfeier, the original version of the first movement of the 2nd Symphony. A quick look through Totenfeier and the 1st mvt of the 2nd reveals that the later version is marked in a great more detail. The opening is essentially the same music, but in the later version there are many more dynamic and articulation marks than in the original. In the development of the later version Mahler writes many tempo modifications that are missing from Totenfeier. This performance incorporated nothing from the final version, and the result was maddeningly static and monotonous. Surely Mahler the conductor had realized that things needed to move ahead or hold back in certain places, and had realized that the players needed more specific phrasing instructions. I suppose I could be being too uptight because I know the final version so well, but I thought the attempt to pretend that there was nothing more to know about Todtenfeier than what was in that score was naïve and clumsy, but worse yet, boring.

Anyway, although there are definite improvements of detail in Leonore 3, Leonore 2 is in some ways even more dramatic, daring and explosive, and I think the audience will be blown away. It’s a little more challenging structurally for the conductor because Beethoven stretches the material much further, but it’s fun.

Thoughts on Schumann 4 to follow, I hope….

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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