Can less be more? ECCO’s assured Beethoven and Mozart give contrasting answers  

United StatesUnited States Beethoven, Clara Schumann, Geminiani, Cerrone, and Mozart: Shai Wosner (piano), ECCO, Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 25.10.2019. (BJ)

Shai Wosner © Miles Essex

Beethoven – String Quartet in F minor, Op.95, Quartetto serioso (arr.)
Clara Schumann (arr. Michi Wiancko) – A Love Suite: I – Liebeszauber, Op.13 No.3; II – Liebst du um Schönheit, Op.12 No.4; III – Er ist gekommen in Sturm und Regen, Op.12 No.2
Geminiani – Concerto grosso in D minor, La folia, H.143 (arr. Michi Wiancko)
Cerrone – The Air Suspended (Philadelphia premiere)
Mozart – Piano Concerto No.14 in E flat major, K.449

In this Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert by the East Coast Chamber Orchestra (ECCO), the opening and closing works could be understood to offer two contrasting views on the suggestion that, in the aesthetic field, ‘less is more.’ It began with a Beethoven string quartet bulked up to full string-orchestra dimensions and ended with a Mozart piano concerto conversely downsized by the omission of the officially ‘ad lib’ parts for pairs of oboes and horns.

Predictably, with this technically and indeed musically adept string orchestra on the platform, Beethoven’s tautly dramatic F-minor Quartet was played with stunning panache — those upward swoops from the violins thrillingly lucid and always perfectly in tune — and as the work progressed there was little to cavil at in either the performers’ command of style or their intensity of tone. And yet the work, to my ears, failed to make anything like the absorbing effect it produces when performed in the original format with just four instruments. It is only then that the obsessively descending pianissimo cello line in the slowish second movement can exert the grippingly human character of one individual expressing himself against a background of three other equally human colleagues; and that is merely one example of the way increasing the performing forces from four instruments to seventeen transforms the message of the music from the vividly personal to the rather ordinarily generic.

This, then, fully supported the idea that ‘less is more’. Performing Mozart’s 14th Piano Concerto, on the other hand, without the wind instruments that enrich the sonorities of the full score argued against that theory — but only to a very small degree, because the orchestra’s eloquent interaction with Shai Wosner’s immaculate and unfailingly perceptive rendering of the solo part produced a sound-picture luxuriant enough to make it easy, on this occasion, to forget about those oboe and horn tones that I love so much.

No less impressive was the spine-tingling hush that they achieved and maintained in their shared encore — a performance of the finale of the composer’s 12th Piano Concerto that brought an evening of pleasurable artistic illumination to a worthy close. Before intermission, meanwhile, we had heard an arrangement of three Clara Schumann Lieder that made me eager to hear them in their original format (that point about the mixed value of the arrangement process again!) and an unreservedly enjoyable performance of Francesco Geminiani’s inventive variations on the traditional La folia theme.

35-year-old Christopher Cerrone’s program note for the Philadelphia premiere after intermission of his The Air Suspended, a roughly 18-minute concertante work for piano and strings, promised some intriguing materials largely based on meteorological phenomena. Even in Wosner’s and ECCO’s assured performance, however, the reality, though skillfully written, fell short of so arresting a prediction: I couldn’t help being reminded of what my gifted former colleague and boss, the late David Drew, spoke of as the ‘Society for the Promotion of Contemporary Program Notes’.

Bernard Jacobson

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