Clarke and company give Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven an authentic spin

fortepianoUntil somebody finally invents a time machine, we’ll probably never know exactly what performances sounded like in Mozart’s day. That said, the recital that violinist Karen Clarke and friends gave Sunday night at Turner Hall provided some intriguing clues.

Judging from the brisk way that Clarke, cellist Christopher Stenstrom and fortepianist Lillian Buss Pearson performed the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, one could assume that tempos were faster in the late-18th-century. The tuning was slightly lower than today’s standard pitch, suggesting sounds that were warmer and more darkly hued. And since the instruments were somewhat more primitive, consisting primarily of wood and gut with no iron and steel, concerts were probably less, well, noisy.

But they were no less red-blooded and emotional. Clarke and company played the music of the late-18th century with classical refinement, but they also performed it with dramatic fire and heartfelt sensitivity. Clearly, storm, stress and passion were all integral ingredients of Enlightenment Era music.

Sunday’s concert opened with one of Mozart’s early duos, the Sonata in F major for Violin and Fortepiano, K. 377. In many respects, this seemed like a typical piece for a Viennese drawing room, circa 1781. The duos of this time were intended for amateurs to play in their living rooms, so the music is technically easy to play. The violin parts of 18th-century duos were also considered optional, so the writing for fortepiano is more intricate and involved. Of course, this sonata was written by Mozart, so both Clarke and Pearson had lots of interesting things to play.

They performed the opening Allegro with energy and a beautifully blended sound. The heart of this sonata is the second-movement theme and variations in D minor, and Clarke and Pearson tossed the melodies back and forth with the intimacy of a casual conversation. They played the finale, a minuet, with charm and elegance.

Like the Mozart duo, Haydn’s Trio in E major, Hob. XV: 28 would have been viewed primarily as an amateur fortepiano sonata, only this time with obbligato parts for both violin and cello. Certainly, any doubts about the primacy of the keyboard were dispelled in the second-movement Allegretto, where the fortepiano often played solo for long stretches. Haydn also reserved his best material for the fortepianist, whose part included some surprisingly advanced and colorful harmonies.

Pearson led the way in this trio, playing with grace, taste and a sure sense of the music’s overall form. Stenstrom and Clarke provided the interpretation with its lyrical sweetness and rhythmic vitality.

Beethoven’ Trio in G major, Op. 1, No. 2, which closed the concert, was an early work, but it already showed one of the major traits of his later chamber pieces, namely, an unwillingness to make technical and musical concessions to amateurs. Indeed, almost everything about this trio suggests that Beethoven wanted to change the nature of chamber music from an amateur pursuit to a professional endeavor. This trio is long, lasting about 30 minutes, and consists of four movements instead of the usual three. The finale is a virtuosic presto instead of an easy minuet. And for once, all three instruments have more of an equal say in the proceedings.

Clarke, Stenstrom and Pearson gave this music its due. They played every note with spontaneity, expression and a tight ensemble. Especially notable was their interpretation of the Largo, which they played with gravity and unfailing sensitivity, and of the finale, which had the fleetness of a Rossini overture. One strongly suspects that Beethoven would have recognized – and appreciated – this style of playing.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.