Mordecai Shehori plays BEETHOVEN, Vol. 2 = Cembal d’amour

Mordecai Shehori plays BEETHOVEN, Vol. 2 = Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109; Piano Sonata No. 26 in E-flat Major, Op. 81a “Les Adieux”; Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 “Emperor” – Mordecai Shehori, piano/ New Hampshire Symphony Orchestra/ James Bolle – Cembal d’amour CD 174, 76:27 (6/1/14) ****:

Mordecai Shehori extends his investigations into the music of Beethoven; and happily, this release from his own Cembal d’amour label provides us a rare instance of his work in ensemble from 1992, featured in Beethoven’s most ambitious piano concerto. His performance of Beethoven’s late E Major Sonata (1820), which I had the privilege to hear in concert in Palo Alto, California – this particular reading comes from Las Vegas, 10 January 2014 – attends to Beethoven’s especial marking and sense of structure. Beethoven both inverts usual Classical procedure and blends the evolving materials into each other with astonishing economy.

What first impresses us in Mr. Shehori’s playing remains his ability to make and to mold piano tone, without forcing, without superfluous digital pressure. Mr. Shehori consistently credits his singular resonance to the tutelage of Mindru Katz, himself a past master of non-percussive but potent keyboard effects. The Op. 109 proffers any number of canon figures, but it does not develop a fugue, as such. The opening movement, Vivace, ma non troppo ed espessivo, literally reverses the usual slow-fast progression, but the emotional temper of the music instills a leisurely confidence and detached serenity. The material of the Vivace insinuates itself into the E Minor Prestissimo, which itself explores the use of intensely punctuated canon. If we sense an underlying unity, Shehori reinforces this affect through the Andante molto cantabile, which becomes a theme and six variations. The variations themselves mask their connective tissue by changing the tempo and much of the metrics at every variation, with the third’s exploiting the bass line. When the original tune returns at the very end, it has both congealed into powerfully decorative and lyrically vaporous elements, of which the Shehori trill has played a major factor.

The 1809 E-flat Sonata immediately grants us a “program,” since Beethoven wrote Lebewohl (“farewell”) over the first three chords. Beethoven’s patron Archduke Rudolf had to flee with his entourage from Vienna in anticipation of a French invasion by Napoleon’s forces. The three descending notes of the Adagio soon evolve into a pained, emotional expression of feeling, Allegro, which Shehori (rec. 28 June 1996) paces with nervous exhilaration. The musical materials often break up into discreet rhythmic units, a sort of gallop in responsory figures, then leaping forward once more. More than one “lesson” in composition and shifts of texture from this sonata seem to have influenced Schumann.  The second movement, Abwesenheit, refers to the feeling of loss. Two impulses, of absence and hope for reconciliation, compete in a manner Beethoven had set forth in his use of chromatics and diatonic melody in the Pathetique Sonata.  Shehori imbues a heavy but intimate gravitas upon this music. Its cautious optimism suddenly breaks free with a rush into a sonata-form Vivacissamamente that hustles into areas of G-flat and F Major that celebrate a fateful return. We enjoy some fine pearly play in the course of the union of the two motives in this movement, the bass line’s becoming increasingly grand.  Typical of Beethoven, we detect a rough humor in the metric collisions, as if Beethoven were mocking his former anxieties.

The Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto of 1809 simultaneously culminates and terminates his “Heroic” period of composition. Shehori enters (rec. 16 October 1992) with a series of broken chords, scales, and trills in answer to the imperious chords from the orchestra. The militant elements in the orchestra first movement receive a dolce response from the keyboard, though conductor Bolle does not overplay his crescendos. The two principals attempt to create as much an intimacy of feeling while maintaining the grand scale of the work. The New Hampshire Symphony tympanist and first trumpet keep us actively engaged in the proceedings. And if you want full tones from the keyboard, try Shehori’s massive scales up and down the keyboard that had elicited from Bernard Shaw, “I did with my ears what I do with my eyes when I stare.” Then, all is light, diaphanous piano to the recapitulation, which cascades forward along with the three orchestral chords. The remainder of the movement plays out with perhaps not the most audacious of readings, but among the most loving.

The B Major Adagio ma non troppo, a lovely song with its own hushed atmosphere and variations, juxtaposes the parlando keyboard against horn and wind colors, then a bridge to an ascending trill that moves into a fluent, legato statement of the melody over pizzicato strings and winds. All proceeds most serenely, until Shehori begins to outline the figures for the last movement –subsequent to a semitone drop –  before storming the ramparts in E-flat Major with a rollicking German dance.  The unbuttoned energy of the Rondo has trumpet and tympani to mark its vital progress, along with flourishes and lyrical episodes between appearances of the ritornello. Shehori likes to subito the dynamic in the course of his rondo theme appearances, injecting even more energy into the cadences, “dramas” not necessarily having been defined as “loudness.”  Less a “virtuoso” performance than a “musical” collaboration, this Emperor remains “regal” for its loftiness of thought and elegance of execution.

—Gary Lemco

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