Beethoven chamber music provides an evening of delights in Bonn

GermanyGermany BTVN WOCHE [2] – Beethoven: Adam Walker (flute), Lucas Macías Navarro (oboe), Vicente Alberola (clarinet), Guilhaume Santana (bassoon), José Vicente Castelló (horn), Daniel Sepec (violin), Tabea Zimmermann (viola), Tomas Djupsjöbacka (cello), Janne Saksala (double bass), Olli Mustonen (piano). Kammermusiksaal Hermann J. Abs, Bonn, 7.2.2020. (MB)

Beethoven – Serenade in D major for flute, violin, and viola, Op.25; Quintet in E-flat major for piano, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn, Op.16; Horn Sonata in F major, Op.17; Septet in E-flat major, Op.20

A lovely concert of early Beethoven chamber music from a fine ensemble: just the thing for a cold February night. The D major Serenade, Op.25, for flute, violin, and viola is a curious work and a rarity in concert, but worth hearing from time to time – and not only in order to wonder at what point one would have guessed the composer, if one did not know already. Its opening Entrata here sounded bright and jolly, Adam Walker’s solo flute and responses from Daniel Sepec and Tabea Zimmermann transporting us to the world of a summer’s eve outdoor entertainment. If that music might often have been from the generation of Bach’s sons, brusque (and other) surprises in the following minuet and trios may have suggested the 1790s after all. Sepec’s fiddling in the first trio, fully matched by Zimmermann, proved quite infectious. Changes were nicely run through the three hearings of the somewhat strange minuet, such variation and more generally comprehending performance ensuring that it never outstayed its welcome. That lack of predictability was followed up in the third movement, ‘Allegro molto’, as characterful, cultivated, and collegiate as the ensuing ‘Andante con Variazioni’. The vigorous whirlwind enveloping us in the scherzando fifth movement and its somewhat ghostly trio suggested Beethoven more strongly than anything heretofore, splendid preparation for a poised ‘Adagio’ that flowed without ever sounding hurried. An irresistibly good-humoured finale rounded things off in infectious and unaffected fashion.

If the Op.16 Quintet for piano and wind instruments was written earlier than the Serenade, it does not necessarily sound so. Mozart’s influence is unsurprisingly strong, but the first movement unquestionably signalled fond recollection rather than imitation. Its introduction was spacious, perfectly balanced, and directed. Here, as elsewhere Olli Mustonen offered more than a hint of steel on piano: perhaps not to all tastes, but his refusal to condescend, let alone to smooth out, and the evident thoughtfulness of his decisions proved ever admirable. A sharply etched opening to the exposition foretold a performance that would have me smile and sit up to attention in equal measure. The slow movement, equal in clarity, was aptly more yielding in character. Its successor was every inch the post-Mozartian hunting finale. If at times, one might have thought one were listening to a concerto, that is Beethoven’s doing, no quirk of performance.

I have sometimes heard disparaging remarks about the Horn Sonata, Op.17. I genuinely cannot understand why; it is a gem, always meriting performance, especially one so refreshing as this. The vigorous approach presented by Mustonen and José Vicente Castelló offered proved quite different from that in a more Mozartian performance I heard last year from Daniel Barenboim and Radek Baborák. It was certainly an account to take no prisoners, more aggressive in the pianism, but with greater precision too. Boldness of contrasts in all three movements suggested once more a commendable seriousness of purpose, however early or allegedly ‘slight’ – it is not – the work may be.

The Septet is a glorious and gloriously unqualified masterpiece: so it sounded here, although the first movement did not quite catch fire for me in the way the rest did. There was much to admire and indeed to love, the first subject making me smile, as too did Beethoven’s cunningly laid surprises in the recapitulation. It basked in Mozart’s glory, yet there was no shadow cast, only sunlight. A relatively swift ‘Adagio cantabile’ won through, recognising that the key here is ‘cantabile’. Get that right, as these players did, and a range of tempi choices can work. Harmony arose, so it seemed, from the combination of instrumental lines, sung as only instruments (as opposed to voices) can. The Minuet swung swiftly, yet with charm. I especially enjoyed Tomas Djupsjöbacka’s cello interventions and the bubbly Harmoniemusik of the trio. A potentially awkward slip later on was admirably well covered, to the extent even of offering interest of its own. The ‘Andante con Variazioni’ swung in a different yet surely related way. Violin and viola duetting, soon joined by the cello proved just the ticket in the first variation. The captivating urgency of the minor-key variation seemed to hint at a Romantic, Mendelssohnian future. Taken at a proper pace, yet with all the space in the world, the Scherzo received a model reading, somehow all the more thrilling the second time around. Its trio, led by wondrously suave cello, offered contrast and complement in equal measure. A portentous introduction built up tension very nicely for the finale, released with a genuine necessity that permitted all soloists to shine and to blend. There were some glorious vistas to take in en route, Sepec’s cadenza arguably first among equals. They never distracted, though, instead contributing to an excellent conclusion of true chamber music.

Mark Berry

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