Teacher and Pupil for the ages – with Ludwig Treviranus at the piano

Hutt Valley Chamber Music presents
Ludwig Treviranus (piano)

Teacher and Pupil – Josef Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven

HAYDN – Piano Sonata in C Major Hob.XVI/50
Andante with Variations Hob.XVII/6

BEETHOVEN – Piano Sonata No.3 in C Op.2 No.3
Piano Sonata No.23 in F Minor Op.57 “Appassionata”

Little Theatre, Lower Hutt

Thursday, 24th September, 2015

One of the Wellington classical music scene’s great communicators, Ludwig Treviranus, gave an entertaining and thought- provoking recital, “Teacher and Pupil”, featuring music by both Haydn and Beethoven, as the final concert in Hutt Valley Chamber Music’s 2015 season.

With this recital the young pianist completes his second year of a three-year term as Performer-in-Residence for Hutt Valley Chamber Music – his aim throughout his tenure is to present varied and interesting concert experiences for audiences, and share his own joy in performing music that he loves.

As with his Lower Hutt recital about a year ago, he realized these objectives in great spadefuls, which were heaped up for our delight with characteristic gusto. Not for him the obligatory bow to the audience at the beginning, followed by the plunge into the music without ado – his attitude was that here was a group of like-minded people (including a number of children) to whom he could express his thoughts, ideas and feelings convening the music he was about to play.

Opinions will vary among concertgoers as to the efficacy of Treviranus’s friendly, easeful and communicative manner. I know there are people out there for whom ANY talking at a concert by either the artists themselves or the concert organizers is unacceptable, while others welcome the informality and “humanizing” process such an approach instigates. For myself, I’m of the feeling that a little talking , especially when done well, goes a long way, considering that we listeners are at the concert first and foremost for the music.

Ludwig Treviranus was, however, nothing if not determined. Having confessed that his recital’s overall theme was one that interested him greatly through having himself been both teacher and pupil in his music studies and activites, he talked about one of the most famous of these relationships, that which took place between Haydn and Beethoven. For the benefit of both teachers and pupils in the audience, he wasted no time in drawing parallels with what continues today when youth encounters experience.

Each of the concert’s halves was devoted to a particular aspect of the Haydn/Beethoven relationship, the first illustrating the respect Beethoven would have had at first for his venerable master via one of the pupil’s works. Beethoven’s C Major Op.2 No.3 Sonata was a perfect choice, as Haydnesque touches abound in the music, even if there are passages where the youthful Beethoven is palpably demonstrating that he already knows his own mind.

Before this was a demonstration of Haydn’s composition mastery via his wonderful C Major Piano Sonata Hob XVI/50, completed a year or so before Beethoven’s work. Ludwig Treviranus used the word “dazzling” to describe the work in his programme notes – and one really couldn’t do better than that. His performance brought out all that was in the music – its simple quirkiness, energy, humour, strength, subtlety, colour, and great dynamic range. And throughout the first movement the playing gathered up all of these qualities in beautifully-crafted spans, paragraphs of adventure which carried us along, right up to the final chords.

At the slow movement’s strummed, almost bardic beginning I thought I detected a pre-echo of a similar gesture which occurs in Beethoven’s “Tempest'” Sonata – the pianist brought out the music’s attractive melancholic vein with some deft detailing, bringing out, in the music’s “development”, some beautifully discursive touches. By contrast, the finale’s spiky, staccato manner played up the music’s humour, as did the pianist’s body language and (in one or two instances) facial expressions (a wry “where is this music taking me?” look that I thought was of a piece with the playing and interpretation.

So it was, when we moved to Beethoven’s Op.2 No.3 Piano Sonata, it seemed all very much of the same world at various points of the discourse, the “ready to pounce” aspect of the opening bars, the melancholy vein of the contrasting second subject and the skitterish lead-back to the opening mood. I noted Treviranus’s disinclination to play repeats in his concert a year ago, and it was the same throughout this concert (to my regret, in places).

Nevertheless there were compensations in the pianist’s seizure of the mood in the development section, the sense of striving towards something unattainable, the lovely legato which followed, and the élan in moving between these contrasts. The recapitulation kept us nicely guessing for a while as to what the music was about to do, Beethoven following Haydn’s example in playfulness and dynamic surprise – a wonderful modulation at the top of one of the runs sending us all tumbling down the other side of a hilltop into freshly-hued territories (a most magical use of the sustaining pedal!) which, when we picked ourselves up, seemed to uncannily “morph” back into the place where we were (this was all very impressively realized by the young pianist!)

The remainder of the sonata’s performance was of a piece – rich contrasting of the slow movement’s broken-phrased opening with its richly-hued middle section, the playing catching the stillness of it at magical moments, and then the “rolling-down-the-hill” fun of the scherzo, with the all-too-visceral “bump” at the bottom, followed by the lurching, bristling trio, the pianist’s sense of enjoyment reflected in his occasional “riding” of the piano stool! Somewhat more poised was the opening of the finale, Treviranus relishing its touches of insouciance whilst setting out to charm us with grace and style.  And so he did, encouraging the beautiful hymnal middle section to dance, and setting the song-birds trilling full-throatedly up to the unexpected (and rather Haydn-esque!) modulation into other realms, before the final and emphatic payoff.

So to the concert’s second half, which demonstrated in no uncertain terms the divergence of the two composers’ pathways. Haydn’s work was a finely-tailored Andante with Variations in the anguished key of F minor, a kind of “double variation”, beginning with two themes (one in F Major as well) and with variations on both of them. Though “contained” in a structural sense, the music’s expressive qualities lingered in a melancholy way long after the last notes had been sounded, the parameters of feeling imparting a distinctive character to the work.

However, turning from this to Beethoven’s “Appassionata” F Minor Piano Sonata, Ludwig Treviranus took us into what seemed like a completely new world of expression – though written as early as 1805, and while Haydn was still alive, here at the keyboard was sound and fury of hitherto undreamed power, a creative force which threatened to burst through walls and overflow structural confines in its quest to convey what it wanted to say.

Beethoven himself was immensely proud of this work, describing it as a “brilliantly-executed display of emotion and music”. I can’t think of another piece of music that displays a more single-minded and remorseless feeling of pursuing a definite goal, even throughout the work’s less stormy passages – perhaps this is due to the first movement’s second, more lyrical subject actually deriving from the sonata’s opening, and the second movement’s theme-and variations resembling more the resonances of a coiled spring rather than a lyrical outpouring, one which, at its end suddenly unleashes its pent-up energies.

Passages in Ludwig Treviranus’s performance came off magnificently – the opening, for instance, immediately created a dark, brooding ambience whose cataclysmic outbursts – immediately after the portentous Fifth Symhony reminiscences – made someone sitting just in front of me in the auditorium visibly start from their seat! A pity the pianist then had a momentary lapse of memory, omitting several of the jagged ascents before the appearance of the second subject – he seemed to hesitate for an instant, but recovered splendidly to give us a beautifully-coloured second subject (unlike in usual sonata-form practice up to that time, a simple ascending variant of the work’s opening three notes).

Throughout the rest of the movement he was at one with the music’s dynamism, drama and relentless, obsessive spirit – only in the great mid-movement tumultuous keyboard descent did the repeated figurations seem to me a touch mechanical (in fact, his upward-thrusting approach to this passage I had thought splendidly prepared – I simply felt the need for a bit more interpretative “grunt” as the music cascaded downwards – it was one of those moments that didn’t seem quite in accord with the idea that in this work Beethoven was shaping the music’s form rather than allowing form (or, in this sequence, simply gravity) to shape the music…….

Still, the ending of the movement conveyed the creative spirit’s force with more-than-sufficient abandon, the last few notes of the coda leaving us properly agape with breathless astonishment! Very properly, the pianist then brought out the warmth and depth of the slow movement’s tightly-wrought theme, the variations allowing us to breathe again more easily, and enjoy the decorative versions of the theme, albeit atop its fettered energies. But there was no escaping the inevitable – Treviranus caught the eerie, brooding darkness of the unexpected modulatory chord at the end of the movement, again transfixing us with a lightning-flash, and hurling the same notes at us like a “horror fanfare”, before the music was plunged headlong into the swirling depths – what drama and excitement!

It wasn’t a performance of the finale which maintained a crackling voltage from first note to last (as was Michael Houstoun’s in Wellington during 2014 – the most INVOLVED playing I’ve ever witnessed from the latter) – Treviranus gave us intensities in great surges, rather than depicting the music as a remorseless torrent. Even if I felt his overall focus “came and went” through this approach, he managed to re-imbue the music with its essential momentum, bringing the tensions splendidly to a head with the coda.

Opinion is divided among commentators regarding Beethoven’s inclusion of the repeat of the development and recapitulation in the finale – having been “brought up” with a recording that observed this repeat, I always feel as though an essential part of the music has been torn away (including a few transitional bars one wouldn’t otherwise hear at all) if this sequence is cut. Treviranus didn’t play it – one does sympathize with any performer of this music in a live recital on purely physical grounds! – it’s a decision which I regretfully record here, but philosophically accept as part of the interpretation, in this case (adding, perhaps a little unfairly, that for me it was the INCLUSION of this repeat that helped contribute to the success of Michael Houstoun’s aforemetioned magisterial performance of a year ago).

Not wanting to finish a review lamenting something that the performer DIDN’T do, I need to emphasize that Treviranus’s heroic, devil-take-the-hindmost way with the fast and furious coda made for a stirring show of defiance and all-out resolve at the end. And so that we wouldn’t emerge TOO ashen-faced from the recital hall, the pianist gave us a beautifully-breathed palate-cleansing encore in the form of the opening of Schumann’s Kinderscenen.

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