Yesterday afternoon the New Esterházy Quartet (violinists Kati Kyme and Lisa Weiss, violist Anthony Martin, and cellist William Skeen) performed their Grand Concert Symphonique program at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. As I observed in my preview piece for this event, while public concerts were on the rise by the beginning of the nineteenth century, they were still relatively rare. Those who loved music were more likely to pursue their interest among friends in a domestic setting, and the composers of the time tended to be better known for arrangements of their works for small groups. Ludwig van Beethoven realized this when he prepared his own arrangement of his Opus 133 “Große Fuge” for four hands at one piano keyboard; and publishers of the time saw the value of arranging symphonic scores for string quartets (whose members tended to be serious amateurs).
With these practices as context, New Esterházy prepared a program of symphonic music performed with chamber music resources. They followed the (by the early nineteenth century) traditional practice of arranging a concert as an overture, followed by a concerto, and concluding with a symphony. They also drew upon composers popular at that time, Beethoven for the overture (to his Opus 43 ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for the concerto (the K. 414 piano concerto in A major), and Joseph Haydn for the symphony (Hoboken I/104 in D major, known as the “London,” but with a curious alteration). Eric Zivian joined the quartet to perform the concerto on a copy of a Dulcken pianoforte made in 1795 (after Mozart’s death but still a “period appropriate” instrument).
Note that I did not call Zivian the soloist. This is a relatively minor point of semantics, since every performer served as a soloist. However, it was clear that, in Mozart’s concerto, the piano played the virtuoso role, turning to the string players for support.
Nevertheless, the distillation of every line of the score to a single performer brought an easily identifiable sense of transparency to the listening experience. While a string quartet cannot amass the dynamic force that one expects from the opening measures of either the Beethoven overture or the Haydn symphony, there was a significant clarity to the differentiation of dynamic levels. In other words, while the ensemble could not play as loud as a full orchestra, they could (and did) explore a broader range of subtle distinctions in levels of volume and of sharp contrasts between loud and soft. The result was that they turned each of their selections into a new listening experience, disclosing aspects of the composer’s inventiveness that would otherwise be lost in the blur of too many instruments.
In this context it is important to note that Zivian took a rather subdued approach to his own solo virtuosity. He was certainly not shy in his execution of those passages Mozart had clearly written for his own show-off tendencies. However, this is a relatively mature concerto in which Mozart had begun to recognize that music is not always all about the soloist. Furthermore, the program included a quote from Mozart’s letter to his publisher suggested that this particular concerto would fare just as well with a string quartet as with a full orchestra; and Zivian seemed perfectly comfortable with approaching the score as if it were “conversational” chamber music.
On the more symphonic side, those who know the music could quickly recognize what was missing by way of sonorities. Most evident was the lack of the wind chorale at the beginning of the Beethoven overture and the absence of trumpets and drums from the Haydn symphony. The sounds were decidedly different; but, as I have already observed, the differences simply provided new lenses through which the familiar would take on less familiar characteristics.
The “curious alteration” to the Haydn symphony involved the publisher discarding the second movement and replacing it with the Andante from Hoboken I/101, which was also in D major. This is the famous “clock” movement from the symphony than is known by the same name, so called because of the steadily ticking pulse behind the melodic activity of the entire movement. That pulse is usually the responsibility of the conductor, but it took on a new dimension when only four soloists were involved.
First of all, by most standards, it was one of the faster approaches to andante to go on record. This created an interesting challenge, since Haydn’s “game” in this movement was to take an almost childishly simple theme and add faster and faster embellishment gestures to it. Kyme had to negotiate these passages while the other instruments kept up the steady (faster than usual) ticking, making for a curious bit of “rhythmic dissonance” that was quite striking. Whether or not Haydn (or, for that matter Kyme) knew about Christian Huygens’ experiments with pendulums in the middle of the seventeenth century, which, when properly coupled, could come into alignment through the process of entrainment, this was how that “rhythmic dissonance” resolved back into consonance, adding an additional touch of humor to an already witty composition. (Huygens, by the way, is generally credited as the inventor of the pendulum clock, the inspiration behind this movement.)