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Beethoven Festival: Jeffrey Swann, Camerata

Concerts conversing with one another

January 10, 2012

With all nine symphonies, all 32 piano sonatas, all five cello sonatas, all 10 violin sonatas and more, more, more sprawling across 34 concerts, the Beethoven festival initiated by the San Antonio Symphony may threaten overkill. But it affords opportunities to deepen as well as broaden our appreciation of that indispensable composer, at once fully titan and fully human.

The first weekend, Jan. 6-8, fortuitously placed the pianist Jeffrey Swann, playing three solo sonatas in Ruth Taylor Recital Hall, between two Camerata San Antonio concerts which together traversed the sonatas and variations for cello and piano, in Christ Episcopal Church. Mr. Swann's recital opened a series of the complete piano sonatas, divided among seven pianists, sponsored by the San Antonio International Piano Competition. The excellent Camerata players were the cellist Kenneth Freudigman and the pianist Kristin Roach.

Mr. Swann preceded each of the sonatas (No. 1 in F Minor, No. 13 in E-flat and No. 29 “Hammerklavier” in B-flat) with extensive remarks about its structure and historical context. He proved a splendid teacher -- intelligent, insightful and clear, but not in the least condescending.

Speaking of the “Hammerklavier,” as audacious and unwieldy a piano work as has ever been composed, Mr. Swann noted the intense personal anguish that Beethoven poured into the vast adagio, and then he observed that the composer did not follow the slow movement with a triumphal finale, as custom dictated, but rather with an enormous, utterly crazy fugue -- a form that might be said to sublimate emotion into intellect, or the personal into the universal. (Mr. Swann did not put it quite that way, but I think I’m fairly representing the sense of his remarks.)

The Camerata concert the following afternoon closed with the Cello Sonata No. 5 in D, composed a few years before the “Hammerklavier” at the dawn of Beethoven’s late period. Aha! Here, too, Beethoven followed a disconsolate slow movement with a fugal finale nearly as nutty as the finale of the
“Hammerklavier.” And the San Antonio Symphony audience will hear that pattern again this coming weekend when music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing conducts the orchestra in the “Eroica” Symphony, whose second movement begins with a funeral march and concludes with a fugue, but one that is far more conservative than the ones that close the much-later chamber works. Together, these three works coming in the space of a single week amplify and complement each other, and deepen our understanding of one aspect of Beethoven’s art.

Mr. Swann shares with some of the most revered pianist of the past (Cortot, Schnabel) a certain want of technical reliability. Although the train never quite jumped the tracks in the absurdly difficult first movement of the “Hammerklavier,” the boxcars did get rather badly banged up along the way. But Mr. Swann’s account of the slow movement was absolutely riveting, the chordings ideally balanced, the pace superbly controlled, the halting rhythms the very soul of pain -- as affecting as any performance I’ve heard. He mined the extremes of the treacherous finale.  

The whole program revealed some interesting idiosyncrasies in Mr. Swann’s playing. He applied considerable tempo rubato, and he tended to speed up in decorative flourishes. In the F Minor sonata, passages that came nearest the classical style of Mozart and Haydn were played with classical clarity and sense of line, but he let the more Beethovenian excursions express their rough-and-tumble, unkempt weirdness. Other pianists have brought greater refinement and analysis to Beethoven’s sonatas, but Mr. Swann conveyed a visceral, risky, on-the-edge quality that is essential to this music.

Mr. Swann is scheduled to return on Feb. 18 to close the series with the three Opus 10 sonatas and Beethoven's valedictory to the form, the Opus. 111.

The two Camerata concerts were especially notable for the inclusion of three sets of variations, an underexposed genre in Beethoven’s output. Variation was central to his approach to thematic development. His many sets of variations, especially those for solo piano, were in part a laboratory for long-form works, but some also stand among his best music.

The Camerata concerts interspersed the five cello-and-piano sonatas with the 12 Variations on Handel’s “Judas Maccabeus,” the 12 Variations on Mozart’s “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” and the Seven Variations on Mozart’s “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen.”  All were exceptionally well played, stylish and poised.

Mr. Freudigman’s rich, luminous tone, singing line and pointed rhythms were consistently pleasurable throughout both concerts. Ms. Roach didn’t solve all the technical problems in the first allegro of the C Major sonata, Op. 102, No. 1, but elsewhere she played with clarity and attention to both the classical and anticlassical sides of Beethoven.  The two partners differed somewhat in disposition -- Mr. Freudigman manifesting greater freedom and intensity, Ms. Roach taking a more direct approach to the music.

Mike Greenberg

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