Scot­tish melodies en­liven Beethoven’s folk songs

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - LEONARD TURNEVICIUS Leonard Turnevicius writes on clas­si­cal mu­sic for The Hamil­ton Spec­ta­tor. leonard­turnevi­cius@gmail.com

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.

COUVRETTE/OT­TAWA

Mezzo Julie Nes­ral­lah leaves CBC’s "Tempo" be­hind for a night of per­form­ing Beethoven’s Scot­tish Songs.

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