Scottish melodies enliven Beethoven’s folk songs
You’ll never guess the genre Ludwig van Beethoven was most productive in.
Masses? Nope. A grand total of two, though that includes the uber-magnificent “Missa solemnis.” (Why is no one in Hamilton programming this work?)
Symphonies? Nein, as Beethoven would’ve said in his native German. Only nine here. Only, we say, as if they were a mere nine whatnots.
String quartets? Naw. Sixteen though, each a string of musical pearls.
Piano sonatas? Negatory. Including juvenilia, 35 of them, key to the repertoire. Give up? Folksong settings. Told you you’d never guess. And Beethoven arranged a boatload of them. Two hundred and ninety-five according to the Digital Archives of the Beethoven-Haus Bonn. English folk songs. Irish folk songs. Welsh folk songs. And, not to be left out in the mist chasing the haggis around the hill, Scottish folk songs, too.
This Saturday evening, mezzo Julie Nesrallah (yes, that Julie Nesrallah, host of “Tempo,” heard weekdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on CBC Radio 2, the highest rated show on that network, wouldn’t ya know) will be performing seven of Beethoven’s “Scottish Songs” op. 108 accompanied by a piano trio as she returns to Atis Bankas’s Music Niagara festival in St. Mark’s Church, Niagara-on-the-Lake. The piano trio will consist of the Lithuanian-born, Moscow (USSR)-trained, NOTLbased Bankas on violin, and the husband and wife duo of cellist Rimantas Armonas and pianist Irena Uss-Armoniene, guest musicians from Lithuania.
“When you hear these songs, you’ll hear that the Scottish melodies are lovely, but really, the star is the piano trio because the accompaniments are super special. They add a lot of personality, and feeling and oomph to the songs,” said Nesrallah over the phone from her Toronto home.
Beethoven received a commission for these folksong settings from George Thomson who sought out Europe’s brightest and best composers for the grand project, providing them with both the melodies and the texts. But as Nesrallah noted, Beethoven’s op. 108, written between 1810 and 1818, never took off the way Thomson had hoped.
“All these songs were meant to be played by young women in their parlours,” explained Nesrallah. “It turned out that the piano parts were so good and a little bit too advanced that none of these amateur players could play them, and they (the songs) didn’t sell very well.”
But if we pay no mind to every other work by Beethoven — block out the “Missa solemnis,” the symphonies, the string quartets, the piano sonatas, the whole enchilada — what would these 25 Scottish folksong settings tell us about their arranger?
“I think what this will show is the emotional intellect that he had,” said Nesrallah without missing a beat. “All he did was listen to these melodies and get a feel for the sound of the tune. And he, somehow, without knowing the words (Beethoven did not speak English), he constructed these pieces that perfectly match the sentiment and the words of the song. You’re talking about a deeply involved, emotional, sentient being with a pretty high emotional intellect who is able to transform that into a beautiful work of art.”
Nesrallah’s seven-song set, which includes “The sweetest lad was Jamie,” and “Come fill, fill, my good fellow,” will end with “Sunset,” a perfect pivot for Franz Schubert’s “Notturno in E Flat” for piano trio. To close the bill, and just in time for sunset, Nesrallah will trot a party piece, Ottorino Respighi’s “Il Tramonto” (The Sunset) for mezzo and string quartet based on the eponymous poem by Percy Shelley.
“It’s one of his big masterpieces for mezzo,” said Nesrallah of the Respighi. “It just shimmers with these constantly shifting colours.”
The “Sunset” concert will open with “Moonlight” by Lithuanian composer Jurgis Juozapaitis. This 10-minute piano trio, dating from 1999, was suggested for the occasion by Armonas and Uss. A brief audio clip on the Music Information Centre Lithuania website gives a glimpse of the work’s evocative, stream-of-consciousness character. Closing the first half is Arnold Schoenberg’s “Verklaerte Nacht” (Transfigured Night), Eduard Steuermann’s 1932 version for piano trio transfigured slightly by Armonas.
Oh, and if you’re wondering why Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” isn’t on this bill, well, pianist Victor Paukstelis gave that work a cogent reading at his St. Mark’s recital last Sunday.
Mezzo Julie Nesrallah leaves CBC’s "Tempo" behind for a night of performing Beethoven’s Scottish Songs.