Under a bit of a cloud of uncertainty over its future, the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival opened its 2010 season on Aug. 28 with a wonderful all-Beethoven program, anchored by a favorite visitor, pianist Robert Levin. The concert took place at the Token Creek Festival Barn, in DeForest.
There were three works in all. First came the set of variations for cello and piano (1801) on a duet from Mozart's Magic Flute. This shows Beethoven in his early years, coming to terms with Mozart's music, but also following a still-traditional format for theme-with-variations works. The cello writing makes technical demands, which another old friend, Parry Karp, handled adroitly.
Next came Beethoven's very last Sonata for Violin and Piano, in G major, Op. 96. Composed in 1813, it belongs to the end of his middle period, rather than to the visionary late one. Cast in four movements, it ranges in character from rhapsodic to eloquent to explosive, culminating in its finale with an example of Beethoven's maturing treatment of theme and variations. For this, Rose Mary Harbison joined Levin in a performance of dash and expressive commitment.
The real novelty, however, came in the final portion of the program. Here we were given an example of the common practice among composers of the late 18th and the whole 19th century of making arrangements of their large-scale scores for chamber-sized groups. There was money to be made in doing this, since there was a strong market -- in days before radio and recordings -- for reductions of new major works that could be played by either professionals or amateurs in domestic settings, the only way some people had of getting to know such scores then.
The work in question was the arrangement that Beethoven made, with the help of an assistant, of his Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58. For this arrangement, Beethoven tinkered with the solo part, and left to the assistant the reduction of the orchestral part for a string quintet (with two violas). This might seem like a problematic miniaturization, but in fact it is feasible as with none other of Beethoven's concertos, given the comparatively modest orchestration and the comparatively understated subtleties of No. 4 alone.
Levin (who has recorded this work with fortepiano and period strings) used a modern piano with discretion, but not without advantage. (The soloist's anguished outburst at the end of the second movement was grippingly powerful.) For his mini-orchestra, he was joined by Mrs. Harbison, Karp and three other local musicians.
Beethoven, in fact, did not make this arrangement for commercial advantage, but rather to gratify a request of his patron, Prince Lobkowitz, for a more economical performing version. It was never published, and was only discovered and reconstructed 15 years ago. That there is a case to be made for such transformations was demonstrated by the intimacy of this version, so suitable for the tight confines of the barn.
Before each half, festival co-director John Harbison, eventually joined by Levin, delivered some illuminating program notes.