March 17, 2017
Landing on an impossibly distant
planet, we hear a sound. It roils and
hammers, winks and scowls; it
ensnares us in nettles, entangles us in
vines, sets us afloat on a cloud; it
waits, becalmed, then coils and strikes.
Could this be music? Or is it some
other mode of being, a shape-shifting
life form, existing only in dreams?
We have arrived at Planet Beethoven,
specifically at two of the weirdest,
wildest, most unnerving soundscapes
ever conceived – the Piano Sonata No.
29 (“Hammerklavier”) and the Grosse
Fuge, in its original context as the
gargantuan final movement of the
String Quartet No. 13. Both are in the
innocent key of B-flat. Careful! The
fruit punch has been spiked with
To hear both of these Holy Grails in
riveting performances on a single
concert is a rare privilege for listeners.
Each, being nearly an hour long and
technically perilous, is an endurance
test for the performers. Camerata San
Antonio served them up on March 12
in the University of the Incarnate
Word concert hall. The pianist in the
“Hammerklavier” was Viktor Valkov,
a hugely gifted Bulgarian pursuing a
doctorate at Rice University’s
Shepherd School of Music; he’s well
known in San Antonio from many
chamber music appearances. The
string quartet was Camerata’s core
ensemble, comprising violinists Matthew Zerweck and Anastasia Parker, violist Emily Freudigman and cellist Ken Freudigman.
The “Hammerklavier” is a fairly recent addition to Mr. Valkov’s repertoire. He first played it publicly last year at the Kingston Chamber Music Festival in Rhode Island and shortly afterward in Houston, then let it rest until bringing it to this Camerata program.
Mr. Valkov’s precise diction had the paradoxical effect of enhancing the protean, almost unhinged quality of the opening and closing allegro movements. His dynamic range was enormous. In the scherzo he displayed a wit and an analytical clarity of lines that recalled Glenn Gould. His tempo in the anguished adagio (not in B-flat major but in F-sharp minor) was a bit slower than the norm — it lasted nearly 20 minutes in this performance — but his supple phrasing, his support of the long arc and his way of pointing certain rhythms suspended time rather than merely occupying it; he held the audience rapt.
It is easy to understand why Beethoven detached the Grosse Fuge from the String Quartet No. 13 and composed a briefer and lighter finale to replace it. The five movements that precede it are, by Beethoven’s standards, unproblematic, even gemütlich, and fairly compact. The fugue thrusts its listeners and its performers into the middle of a vast bramble patch and dares them to escape.
This performance was notable first of all for exceptional care in preparation from first to last, as evidenced by finely balanced chordings, a consistency of rhythmic style and superb clarity of all voices, even in the thickest textures of the fugue. The performance was never in doubt as to what it wanted to be, but it also managed to sound spontaneous. Some details were especially memorable – Mr. Zerweck’s snappy rhythms in the second movement (presto); the supple, earnest phrasing in the tender fifth movement (cavatina); the ferocious start of the fugue.
By the way, Beethoven composed 15 more string quartets and 31 more piano sonatas. Just sayin’.
Camerata San Antonio string quartet: Matthew Zerweck (violin), Anastasia Parker (violin), Ken Freudigman (cello), Emily Freudigman (viola).
Below: Viktor Valkov, after the “Hammerklavier” Sonata