REVIEW: Mannes Beethoven Institute, 'Music of Ludwig van Beethoven and Stephen Hartke'

By Jon Sobel on Jun 03, 2014 03:42 PM EDT

Each year the Mannes Beethoven Institute explores the work of the great composer through a series of events including faculty concerts. This year, the event's 14th, two faculty concerts pair works of Beethoven with 20th-century composer Stephen Hartke, a distinguished artist based at USC, whose work I had never heard.

In putting together last night's program, pianist and Institute Director Thomas Sauer assembled several colleagues to perform four works that are directly related only in that three of them are sets of variations. He was not suggesting any particular dialogue between the classical and modern pieces, he told us, but rather a platform to expose audiences to Hartke's work, which he believes is important. I would agree, and add that the two pieces presented last night are also compelling and, though highly accomplished technique underlies them, just plain fun too.

The dissonant double-stops opening Hartke's Sonata-Variations for Violin and Piano (1984) could perhaps be said to very distantly echo the slow, unison arpeggios that make up the curious beginning of Beethoven's Fourteen Variations in Eb Major for Piano Trio, Op. 44 (c. 1792), which opened the program. It's not one of Beethoven's best-known works and I don't think I'd ever heard it before, but Mr. Sauer, violinist Mark Steinberg and cellist Michael Kannen made a good case for it as an ear-pleasing exemplar of the reworked style Beethoven was developing in the early 1790s. With admirable cohesion, a light touch and a bit of humor, the trio's highly enjoyable performance made the most of the contrasts among successive variations and drew pathos from the few minor-key segments set amid the dominating Eb-major good spirits.

Hartke builds his Sonata-Variations around a theme with 15 variations, but also divides it into two movements, an "Andante" and an "Introduction, Rondo and Finale." Within those demarcations he develops the underlying dissonant theme through energetic, creative interplay between violin (here played by Mr. Steinberg) and piano (Alan Feinberg). Thanks both to the inventive music and the colorful and convincing musicianship, I loved the piece, from the modernistic flair of the forte sections to the keening, lyrical slower section in the middle of the "Rondo" where the theme's drama persists even as the melody goes unexpected places.

Harke's 1998 Piano Sonata is a briefer work whose central and longest section bears a denotation that suggests its lighter feel: "Epicycles, Tap-Dancing, and a Soft Shoe." The rumbling tone clusters of the "Prelude," interspersed with major chords that provide a welcome sense of security, transition to fluttery chords in a higher register with sharp staccato interjections. A towering crescendo was only the first suggestion of a Gershwinesque sense of jazzy play, which continued in the main "Epicycles" section. Here I also heard a hint of a playful Debussy mingling with Gershwin-like rhythms.

The "Postlude" returns to the solemn flavor of the "Prelude" and felt a little like something from a cloudy, demented Chopin Nocturne.

Finally, pianist HaeSun Paik brought plenty of fire and drama to her interpretation of Beethoven's 1802 "Eroica" Variations (Fifteen Variations with Fugue in Eb Major for Piano, Op. 35), the only piece on the program I was familiar with. But that fire and drama didn't feel authentic, with extreme tempo gradations that weren't to my taste and an overall lack of the clarity of tone the other pianists had drawn from the same Steinway.

Despite that one disappointment, I regret that I won't be able to attend the second concert this Friday for more music by Beethoven and Hartke.

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TagsMannes, Mannes College The New School for Music, Mannes College of Music, Beethoven, Stephen Hartke

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