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7.3.04

Beethoven Boyled Down

On Monday, January 26th, an ambitious program of music was to be presented at the German Embassy as part of the Monday concert series of the Beethoven Society of America. A blizzard blew the concert into March and onto one of the nicest days of the year so far, March 1. A mild evening invited being put to good use. I can't imagine much better a use than to attend the concert that Emil Chudnovsky (violin) and Michael Sheppard (piano) gave that night. I was a bit worried after my last concert experience at the German Embassy had been sub-par on every level and contrasted painfully with the lovingly arranged and excellent events at the Austrian Embassy. But the program looked promising. Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata in A Major, op. 47—a gargantuan work—was to be followed by the shorter but significant Brahms Sonata in D Minor. The program announced Sonata op. 109, but I have the nagging suspicion it might just have been op. 108. It would not be the only typo on the extraordinarily flimsy program. After the intermission there were the Kreutzer Concert Variations by some contemporary composer and a slew of entertaining warhorses, among them Ravel's Tzigane and Pable de Sarasate's Gypsy Airs.

The concert was about to start when the dapper-looking chap with plateau shoes and coke-bottle glasses whom I had seen smoking outside, program in hand, turned out to be Emil Chudnovsky. It doesn't go to show anything, really, but I feel like that should have taught me some lesson. Ludwig van Beethoven's "Kreutzer" began. Michael Sheppard, whom I would have liked to talk about a bit in detail (alas, the promised bio was not forthcoming), got to work on the piano. From the very first chord on, his playing came across as muscular and uninhibited. Short, dry, and with a no-nonsense approach he played so as to let the violin seem to make itself heard: "we care not." Emil Chudnovsky procured a determined and lyrical quality in those opening bars, which sound like Beethoven but feel like Bach. It established the tone right away as enthralling Beethoven, both unfailingly exciting and unabashedly energetic. Some repeats were apparently omitted, but had they not been, the first half of the program alone would have gone on for well over an hour. During the second movement, Andante con variazioni, I would have wished for a bit more sensuality in Michael Sheppard's playing. I wonder if he was himself entirely convinced of the movement, but the result was at any rate better than any sappy and winsomely flat approach which is all too often the alternative.

The power of performance has a simplistic but easy measure: if the violinist's bow does not suffer (as it did with Mr. Chudnovsky), the performance was likely lacking. The Beethoven here was everything but. It ended easily as exciting as it started and was most warmly welcomed by the audience in the auditorium of the German Embassy. While the auditorium has the charm of a 1960s gym, the acoustics are actually quite good. (It is at any such performance worth reminding yourself of the fact that this piece, or any other, was likely never performed as well during Beethoven's lifetime. Short of individuals like Franz Liszt and Joseph Joachim—and even that's anyone's guess—performers simply didn't have the technical prowess that most conservatory graduates possess these days.)

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