Review: Juilliard415 Plays Beethoven

Peter Jay Sharp Theater; Sunday, January 18, 2015 at 5 p.m.

Monica Huggett, violin and director; Chloe Fedor, violin

All-Beethoven Program:

BEETHOVEN Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, Op. 43
BEETHOVEN Romance No. 2 in F Major
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 4

Juilliard415 hurtled out of its Baroque sanctuary to present an all-Beethoven program from the early 19th century, which featured a whole new menagerie of instruments for the period ensemble. The violins may have looked more modern than medieval, but the performance as a whole sounded quite different from the anodyne Beethoven that rides the airwaves today.

The group performs differently with each piece of music, and can be followed best through its bows. Juilliard415’s October production of Zelenka’s “Missa Dei Patris” with the Yale Schola Cantorum featured bows only a bit more evolved than the top example in the picture below. (They really did look like archery bows, too–at least back then).

BOW

Photo: Oliver Webber, monteverdiviolins.org/BOW.jpg

The Beethoven bows were like the one in the middle of the photo above, some time after François-Xavier Tourte’s revolutionary new design hit the market. These new bows projected more to fill the bigger concert halls of Tourte’s day, and actually bent backwards rather than forwards to increase the surface tension of the horsehair. The final bow, with an even more pronounced bend, is what a violinist uses today.

The attention to historical detail further permeated the ensemble’s method of presentation. “Director” Monica Huggett, neither conductor nor concertmistress, led the ensemble from the first chair of the violin section and used her bow to keep time at critical moments. Her exertions fueled the group’s energetic interpretation of Beethoven’s only numbered ballet, the Overture to Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (Op. 43). The warmth of the period winds and the youthful excitement of the period instrumentalists themselves gave this work of the Classical Beethoven a certain élan usually reserved for Beethoven the Romantic, all without a loss of the delicate, caressing nature of classical historical performance.

Classical Beethoven made a second appearance with Chloe Fedor’s performance of the Romance in F Major (Op. 50). Ms. Fedor blended well with the orchestra, passing off Beethoven’s melody to her co-instrumentalists without flaw. At times, Ms. Fedor’s headstrong performance worked against her softer 19th-century strings and bow, giving the impression of a violist who hasn’t quite adjusted to the smaller size of the more sprightly violin. But in the stylistic interpretation of historical Beethoven–particularly in her restrained vibrato and even phrasing*–Ms. Fedor made the particularities of nineteenth-century performance seem natural.

The second half of the concert featured Beethoven’s sylphlike Fourth Symphony, another of Beethoven’s more classical creations that wove in seamlessly with the ensemble’s period instruments. Robert Schumann** contrasts the Fourth Symphony, “a slender Grecian maiden,” to the “Nordic giants” of Beethoven’s Third and Fifth. The Fourth Symphony’s wispy opening certainly recalls this priestess-of-Artemis type of incantation. And it is here that Juilliard415 captures Beethoven’s intentions particularly well.

"The Golden Bough," by J.M.W. Turner (1834), via Wikimedia

“The Golden Bough,” by J.M.W. Turner (1834), via Wikimedia

The third and fourth movements lean a bit more towards Beethoven the Titan again, aided by particularly virtuosic timpani playing that drove the greater part of the action. Some of the diminished 7th chords here even recall the fabulously crunchy dissonances found (here) in the Eroica. And the period bows were again used to their full effect in the cellos, who pressed down on their chords in the Allegro con brio with the full weight of the stick, leading to a delightfully woody drone that I can only associate with a bagpiper pulling tartan-colored taffy.

The young ensemble had occasional issues with cohesion, particularly in fast runs that jumped between voice parts. But the group brought a necessary athletic vigor to Beethoven’s early œuvre, which illuminated the possibilities of modern historical performance that has already done so much to enliven our contemporary understanding of the early Baroque.


*As observed by my astute fellow concert-goer, Susan Schurr.

**Quoted by James M. Keller in the evening’s program notes.

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