In concert – Alexander Sitkovetsky, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Beethoven in Hereford

alexander-sitkovetsky

Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin, above), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Mendelssohn Symphony no.4 in A major Op.90 ‘Italian’ (1833 rev.1834)
Carwithen arr. Woods
: Lento for Strings (1945 arr. 2020)
Beethoven
Violin Concerto in D major Op.61 (1806)

St. Peter’s Church, Hereford
Sunday 26 July 2021 (3.30pm) (Concert reviewed online via ESO Digital)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

For this first concert in its 2021/22 season, the English Symphony Orchestra was heard at St. Peter’s Church, Hereford in a concert combining familiar classics with an arrangement of the kind that has been a hallmark of its programming under principal conductor Kenneth Woods.

The piece in question was a Lento for Strings that began as the slow movement of the First Quartet by Doreen Carwithen. Although she left a notable output of concert and film music, Carwithen (1922-2003) is remembered mainly through her association with William Alwyn – being his amanuensis from 1961 and second wife from 1975 for the final decade of his life. At the time of this quartet, she was a promising composer in her own right, as confirmed by Woods’s adaptation of the slow movement so that its prevailing intimacy and introspection lose none of their acuity. The ESO played it with requisite poise and finesse, not least those plangent solos for viola and violin that were eloquently rendered here by Matt Maguire and Kate Suthers, thereby resulting in an atmospheric miniature which warrants frequent revival.

Mendelssohn was just a year older when he completed his Italian symphony, long among his most popular works even if heard a mere handful of times then withheld from publication in his lifetime. Maybe the touristic nature of its conception or its unlikely tonal trajectory (A to A minor) created issues he was unable to resolve, but in creating this symphonic suite he had unconsciously set a precedent. Woods undoubtedly had its measure – whether in an Allegro (exposition repeat included) whose joyousness did not exclude more combative energy from its development and coda, an Andante whose journeying pilgrims were evoked with no little pathos, an intermezzo deftly revisiting the wide-eyed enchantment of the composer’s youth, or a finale whose interplay of saltarello and tarantella rhythms surged on to a decisive close.

Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is one of a select few in its genre whose weight and substance justifies its occupying the whole second half. Alexander Sitkovetsky responded accordingly – the opening movement long-breathed but sustaining itself at least until the latter stages of the development, when a sense of expectancy rather failed to materialize. Momentum picked up thereafter, not least during a finely projected account of the (Kreisler) cadenza whose tensile rhetoric subsequently made the orchestra’s heartfelt re-entry in the coda seem more telling.

The highlight of this performance came with the Larghetto, slower than is often now the case but its sequence of variations melding into each other with seamless elegance, with a rapport between soloist and conductor at its most tangible in the theme’s hushed reiteration prior to a spirited transition into the Rondo. This did not lack for impetus, and if Sitkovetsky was most perceptive in the intervening episodes, the anticipation generated as the main theme steals in on the approach to the final tutti carried through to the nonchalant pay-off of the closing bars. An appealing and enjoyable concert in which, moreover, the ESO sounded not at all fazed by the vagaries of the acoustic. It continues its current schedule on October 10th with music by Mendelssohn, Mozart and Schubert – plus a mystery piece ‘‘to be announced on the night’’!

Further information on the ESO’s next concert can be found at their website. For more on Doreen Carwithen, visit the MusicWeb International page here

Listening to Beethoven #195 – 6 Variations on Ich denke dein WoO 74

beethoven-goethe-2

Beethoven and Goethe

6 Variations on Ich denke dein WoO 74 for two pianos (1799-1803, Beethoven aged 31)

Dedication Therese, Josephine and Charlotte von Brunsvik
Duration 5′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Keith Anderson writes that in 1799, Beethoven ‘wrote a setting of Goethe’s Ich denke dein and four variations for piano duet on the theme for two pupils, the Countesses Therese and Josephine Brunsvik, daughters of a family with which Beethoven remained friendly through much of his life. In 1803 he added two more variations and the song and variations were published in 1805.

Pianist Peter Hill, writing for a recent recording he made with Benjamin Frith on the Delphian label, highlights Beethoven’s affection for Josephine, expressed in a passionate letter later in his life. He notes the romantic mood of the theme and its variations, pointing towards Mendelsssohn in the faster music especially.

Thoughts

As the story implies, this is a domestic piece for use among close friends. It certainly has that intimate, conversational feel, with less obvious opportunities for virtuosic display but plenty to keep the players occupied and impressed with Beethoven’s resourceful working.

The theme itself is warm hearted, the first variation too. Then Beethoven plays around with syncopations, the two players gainfully employed, before a thoughtful, slow third variation, which is unexpectedly deep in feeling. This time out enhances the fourth variation, a fizzy affair with exchanges between the two players which drew the Mendelssohn comparison from Peter Hill. Darker colours appear briefly for an instalment in the minor key, after which the sunlit textures of D major return and the piece ends calmly but warmly, providing a glimpse of an all-too rare warmth and tenderness in Beethoven’s life at the time.

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Peter Hill & Benjamin Frith (Delphian)
Amy and Sara Hamann (Grand Piano)
Louis Lortie & Hélène Mercier (Chandos)
Jörg Demus & Norman Shetler (Deutsche Grammophon)

All excellent versions, capturing the intimacy of Beethoven’s writing but also the glint in the eye as he writes.

Also written in 1803 von Pasterwicz 300 Themata und Versetten Op.42

Next up Piano Concerto no.3 in C minor Op.37

Listening to Beethoven #194 – Graf, liebster Graf, liebstes Schaf, WoO 101

graf-grafPeanuts comic strip, drawn by Charles M. Schulz (c)PNTS

Graf, liebster Graf, liebstes Schaf WoO 101 for three voices (1802, Beethoven aged 31)

Dedication Count Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovecz
Text Beethoven
Duration 0’45”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

This is one of Beethoven’s early musical jokes, which he included in a letter to his friend, Count Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovecz. The short text translates as ‘Count, Count, dear Count, best sheep!’

Thoughts

Literally scribbled on the back of an envelope, this is a charming fragment – cleverly working the pronunciations into the melody. Very much a case of less is more!

Recordings used

Cantus Novus Wien / Thomas Holmes (Naxos)

Coro della Svizzera / Diego Fasolis (Arts Music)

Also written in 1802 Reichardt Das Zauberschloss

Next up 6 variations on Ich denke dein WoO 74

Listening to Beethoven #193 – 6 Ländler WoO 15 (piano version)

ein-landler

Ein Landler (anon, 1897)

6 Ländler WoO 15 for piano (1802, Beethoven aged 31)

Dedication unknown
Duration 6′

written by Ben Hogwood

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven often turned to the Ländler, a folk dance in 3/4 time, as a way of helping entertain his Viennese clientele. He was able to score them for different instrumental combinations, presumably in response to the circumstances of the entertainers. This set is originally for two violins and a bass instrument – but as with many of these dances was also reworked into a piano version.

Thoughts

The piano version of these dance pieces brings out the ‘drone’ qualities in the accompaniment more. These can be heard on the first beat of the bar, where the left hand of the piano typically plays in intervals of a fifth, the support on which the more rhythmic elements of the dance can work their magic.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Jenő Jandó (Naxos)
Martino Tirimo (Hänssler)

Both versions are nicely played, bringing out the spring in Beethoven’s step.

Also written in 1802 Förster 3 String Quartets Op.21

Next up Graf, liebster Graf, liebstes Schaf WoO 101

Listening to Beethoven #192 – 6 Ländler WoO 15 (version for two violins and bass)

Wilhelm_Gause_Hofball_in_WienTwo ladies are presented to Emperor Franz Joseph at a ball in the Hofburg Imperial Palace, painting by Wilhelm Gause (1900)

6 Ländler WoO 15 for two violins and bass (1802, Beethoven aged 31)

Dedication unknown
Duration 6′

written by Ben Hogwood

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

As we know from earlier examples, Beethoven often turned to the Ländler, a folk dance in 3/4 time, as a way of helping entertain his Viennese clientele. He was able to score them for different instrumental combinations, presumably in response to the circumstances of the entertainers. This set is originally for two violins and a bass instrument – but as with many of these dances was also reworked into a piano version.

Thoughts

D major was Beethoven’s ‘go-to’ key for Ländler – and five of the six examples in this small set are in that key. The only exception is no.4 in D minor, which works well as a ‘trio’ section if all six are played back to back. It is a frown in comparison to the other five, which are carefree examples of Beethoven fulfilling a function with ease.

The first is bright, and light on its feet, the fifth has an attractive flourish but feels half-finished. Typically the sixth and final dance, a simple arpeggiated affair, signs off with a coda.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Tristan Siegel, Noa Sarid (violins), Aleck Belcher (double bass) (Naxos)
Lukas Hagen, Rainer Schmidt (violins), Alois Posch (double bass) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Consortium Classicum (Warner Classics)

Some attractive versions – including an account for small string ensemble, nicely played by Consortium Classicum.

Also written in 1802 Förster 3 String Quartets Op.21

Next up 6 Ländler for piano WoO 15 (1802)