BEETHOVEN: King Stephan Overture, Op. 117; Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37; SHCHEDRIN: Carmen Suite, one-act Ballet – Mikhaïl Pletnev, piano/ L’Orchestre de Chambre de Genève/ Gabor Takacs-Nagy – Claves 50-3039/40 (2 CDs, 43:47; 42:41) (2/11/22) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Recorded live at Victoria Hall, Geneva, 2 March 2021, this document attests to an extraordinary set of circumstances dictated by the Covid-19 epidemic. Even after the Geneva State Council had permitted the Chamber Orchestra to proceed with rehearsals and television cameras for a limited audience – originally meant for 2 March 2021 – some 40 minutes prior to the rehearsal came the announcement that the ensemble’s concertmaster had been diagnosed with Covid! The possibility of transmission amongst the rest of the orchestra demanded various quarantines imposed on a significant number of musicians. The conductor remained willing to proceed with those members unaffected, and a replacement concertmaster, Svetlin Roussev, of the L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, was engaged. The necessary conditions – masks, distance between musicians, screen for the recording crew – the salutary protocols, fell into place. Soloist Pletnev stood firm in his commitment to the project, and he proved “contagious” in the best sense.
The program opens with kinetic rendition of Beethoven’s King Stephan Overture (1811), composed for Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria as part of the inauguration of the new theater at Pest. King Stephan has a legendary status among Hungarians as founder of the Kingdom in the year 1000. The dramatist August von Kotzebue (1761-1819) dramatized Stephan’s character, and Beethoven supplied the overture and nine sung parts for incidental music. The famous opening of four calls in the trumpets, horns, bassoons, and strings leads to the martial tune in the flute, accompanied by woodwinds, horns, and pizzicato strings. Even with reduced forces, conductor Takacs-Nagy evokes the vocal theme easily anticipatory of the Ninth Symphony. The march and the two themes played Presto develop and move to the coda, which always, in good hands, resounds with a colossal energy.
The reduced orchestral forces shine an intimate light on the 1803 C Minor Concerto, Beethoven’s direct musical homage to late Mozart, especially his own Concerto in C Minor, K. 491. The ninth bar of Beethoven’s opening movement, Allegro con brio, utilizes the same motto, C-E-flat-A-flat, as Mozart but with an added resolve (including the potent use of the timpani) that marks Beethoven’s own transition into his so-called “second period” of development. Pletnev’s interpretation, too, bridges the new blend of lyricism and high drama that Beethoven has effected. Pletnev’s alternating arpeggios and virile runs capture the directed focus of this music’s dramatic energy and economy of means. Takacs-Nagy and his symphony forces remain both alert and persuasively flexible as the development evolves. The low strings of the Geneva Chamber Orchestra produce a wonderful sense of mystery to which the keyboard, bassoon, and flute contribute a veiled aura. The recapitulation projects an aesthetic sense of architecture, as the themes revive and move to Pletnev’s statement of the lyrical secondary theme and his muscular cadenza. Here, the application of strict counterpoints increases the consolidation of dramatic impulses, leading to that ever-beguiling dialogue with the timpani to close out one of Beethoven’s most impressive first movements.
Pletnev and muted strings introduce the E Major Largo, itself “an oasis of calm” between the two outer movements. The immediacy of a chamber music affect mesmerizes us, even to the point of our hearing Takács-Nagy’s low-volume singing to his own playing. When Pletnev’s arpeggios accompany a duet for flute and bassoon, the result never fails to dazzle us with the composer’s startling ear for lyrical color. Beethoven takes a few pages from his Haydn arsenal of tricks for the C Minor Rondo: Allegro, including a false move to a seeming recap that avoids C Minor both for A-flat and the second movement’s E Major. This has transpired after the clarinet had announced a second tune that led to an extended moment of fugato. What makes this performance precious lies in the transparency the principals maintain for Beethoven’s diverse textures. The Geneva ensemble’s tympanist has consistently added a decisive spice to this well-wrought realization of Beethoven’s new personal style.
Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin (b. 1932) in 1967 took on the project of a ballet version of Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen at the request of his Shchedrin’s wife, Maya Plisetskaya, who had always dreamed of dancing Bizet’s alluring cigarette girl and her fatal passion for a jealous soldier. Aware, however, of the dangers of “competing” with Bizet, Shchedrin arranged his own suite, derived from operatic excerpts and selected movements from L’Arlésienne and La Jolie Fille de Perth. The modern orchestration, with tis rhythmic diversities, includes a sizzling application of percussion effects, as well as acerbic and dissonant, passing harmonies in the strings and woodwinds. Bizet’s basic shape remains, but its new clothes reveal any number of erotic possibilities, most of which originally caused consternation in the Soviet regime at that time. As the composer stated, “The Communists were always afraid of sex.” It was the intervention by distinguished composer Dmitri Shostakovich that “legitimized” the new ballet for consumption by the Russian public.
Conductor Takács-Nagy assembles 13 of the original 17 sections, of which one of the more impressive moments occurs in the Torero movement, when the melody drops out entirely, leaving only the accompaniment instruments to suggest the possibility of the tune. The re-scoring of the Second Intermezzo for strings and light percussion proves no less beguiling. The reduced number of strings, as a result of the Covid crisis, accentuates the plasticity and acerbic delicacy of the percussion – like tubular bells, castanets, snare drum, and glockenspiel – a most delicious, auditory experience. This entertaining disc validates the eternal proposition that necessity – or crisis – is the mother of invention.