Live | Beethoven: Music in Revolution (RWCMD)

Nigel Jarrett attended the Dora Stoutzker Hall at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama to an evening of music from Ludwig van Beethoven.

Catriona MacKinnon (oboe), Robert Plane (clarinet), Meyrick Alexander (bassoon), Tim Thorpe (horn); David Adams (viola), David Stark (double bass); The Gould Piano Trio: Lucy Gould (violin), Alice Neary (cello),  Benjamin Frith (piano)

Beethoven: Piano Trio in B flat Op. 11
Beethoven: Quintet for Piano and Winds in E flat, Op. 16
Beethoven: Septet in E flat, Op.20


Even a Beethovenfest lasting five days and concentrating on the composer’s chamber works can set pulses racing and be a celebratory end in itself. The issue of his relationships with the two other Viennese titans, Mozart and Haydn, is interesting and in this context often relevant. But, as the title of the event – Beethoven: Music In Revolution –  indicated, the pointers may swing towards the others for a while but hover above them, as if impatient to return to the new direction in which the man himself was always heading. With an over-arching lecture, a workshop, afternoon and evening concerts, the residencies of the Gould Piano Trio and the Elias String Quartet,  nine guest instrumentalists, foyer music, and the support of Philip and Christine Carne with the Radcliffe Trust, the whole exercise would have been difficult to contemplate anywhere in the city other than at the RWCMD.  Total immersion began with the cantata Ah! Perfido and other works, and ended with a concert capped by the ‘Archduke’ Piano Trio. Anyone who attended it all must have been refreshingly flaked out.

Gould Piano Trio © Jake Morley

There’s plenty of evidence in succeeding generations of how Beethoven paved the way for others, but the many sounds of surprise that pepper even his early work can still bring the listener up short; not least in the Piano Trio in B flat Op.11, this version performed with the original clarinet part instead of the oft-substituted violin. Its essential playfulness and charm are less impressive than the manner in which they are despatched: with sudden emphasis and sharp textural contrast, to which Gould, Neary and Frith were ever alive. The change of mood between the end of the first movement and the plaintive cello tune that begins the slow second was typical of how such vigour (supported by the opening’s sonata-form rigour) foreshadows the essence of the composer’s later work. The shape of the trio was nothing new in itself but its originality lay elsewhere, not least in the counterbalancing of the terse first movement with the legendary variations and coda of the last, a point that the festival was making with its reminder that Beethoven returned to trusted forms for inspiration and had begun to overturn the musical status quo before such upheaval became an historical and social fact.

That said, there were practical matters to consider in a concert of these particular works, not least how compositions involving instruments such as piano and strings are matched with winds, whose players have to take regular breaths. Plane, Alexander, Thorpe, Gould, Adams, Neary and Stark successfully blurred these distinctions in a performance of the Septet in E flat Op.20 that combined al fresco lightness of its six movements with stateliness and virtuosity. Gould especially rose to the occasion of the prominence Beethoven gave to her instrument, Thorpe and Plane made the most of their agility in the minuet’s trio section, and Alexander flowered melodiously late in the lovely slow movement. Adams and the three wind players are, or have been, orchestral players and enjoy local connections. Their coming together with members of the Gould Trio for this concert was therefore not only partnership of a felicitous sort but also resulted in music-making that was meticulous in its preparation and exuberantly despatched.

In the Septet, suggestions of counterpoint are kept at bay in the development of the finale’s second theme. Coupled with the wind choir and the dazzling violin cadenza that herald the recapitulation – unique, of course – it had echoes of the Quintet for Piano and Winds in E flat Op.16 (Frith, MacKinnon, Alexander, Thorp and Plane) which, as the central work performed, itself had suggested Harmoniemusik and the almost exclusive and independent place the wind section occupied in Beethoven’s symphonies – except that, here, the tendency of the instrumentation to suggest a miniature piano concerto, as in Mozart’s template Quintet K.452, is subverted by Beethoven’s headstrong sense of spontaneity; thus, a mini concerto by another name. When the wind quartet was behaving like some celestial choir, expectations of a break-out by any one of its members were high. That the music could still raise them and the players invest the music with the conditions in which they might prosper said as much for the performance as for the ever-present sense of drama and suspense in the score. Given the context supplied by the festival’s theme, the final rondo, in 6/8 ‘hunting’ mode, could scarcely fail to suggest a composer heading off alone to new territory.

Other guest instrumentalists who appeared at the festival were Rachel Roberts (viola), André Swanepoel (violin), Rosie Biss (cello). The Elias String Quartet were Sara Bitloch, Donald Grant, Martin Saving and Marie Bitloch. Among other Beethoven music featured were string quartets, sonatas for violin, piano and cello, Bagatelles for piano from Op. 126, other piano trios and the Choral Fantasy, Op.80, as well as complementary works by Mendelssohn, Janáček and Richard Strauss.


Header image courtesy of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama