Today Natalya Lundtvedt returned to Old St. Mary’s Cathedral to give the penultimate recital of Piano Month at Noontime Concerts™, which takes place every August. Last year Lundtvedt began the month, serving as the recitalist for the Helen von Ammon Memorial Concert. This year her status was more that of an “honored alumna.”
There were many disappointments last year, most of which had to do with an apparent need to prioritize executing the maximum number of notes per minute. This year, however, Lundtvedt began with a piece that demands more of the performer, Ludwig van Beethoven’s set of 32 variations on an almost miniscule original theme in C minor. It would be fair to describe this as a controversial piece, particularly since it was never published in Beethoven’s lifetime. (It is cataloged as WoO 80.)
Alexander Wheelock Thayer suggests that Beethoven wrote this piece “for amusement and recreation after the fatigue of severer studies.” Since we know it was composed in 1806, we know what those “severer studies” were. That is the year in which Beethoven completed his three Opus 59 (“Rasumovsky”) string quartets, his Opus 58 (fourth) piano concerto in G major, the Opus 61 violin concerto, and the Opus 60 (fourth) symphony in B-flat major. In that context it is entirely understandable that Beethoven felt the need for a good belly-laugh.
Regarding WoO 80 as the source of that belly laugh is the more optimistic point of view one may take. The darker one is that it is a musical depiction of psychosis that anticipates the first appearance of that term in the psychiatric literature by about 35 years. As is frequently the case with his variations, Beethoven impresses with the breadth of diversity in his treatment of his simple original theme; but in this case one man’s diversity is another man’s frighteningly wild mood swings that can only come from a seriously disturbed mind.
It is to Lundtvedt’s credit that she did not “cast her own vote” for one of these interpretations. Instead, she strove to execute the text as Beethoven had written it, letting the extremes fall where they may, on the side of either raucous humor or certifiable mental illness. She let the listener decide which would be the more accommodating interpretation, and the fact is that what emerged was a reading in which both sides of the coin were equally valid. Perhaps Beethoven himself realized how fine the line was between exuberant jollity and mania. Perhaps he made the decision that neither pianists nor listeners would get that message and consequently chose not to publish this music. (On the other hand it could be that any publisher who looked at the work responded with something like, “Beethoven, do you really mean to publish that?!?”) Beyond all that speculation, however, there remains the fact that Lundtvedt delivered a thoroughly convincing interpretation of one of the more enigmatic entries in the catalog of Beethoven’s works.
Would that she had brought such perceptive insight to the rest of her program. Sadly, her fixation with note density undermined her approaches to both Franz Liszt and Frédéric Chopin. The former involved not only the third of his “Liebesträume” pieces but also his transcription of “Widmung,” the opening song from Robert Schumann’s Opus 25 cycle Myrthen. The Chopin, in turn, consisted of the first of the Opus 29 impromptus and the first and twelfth of the Opus 25 études. What was lost in the note density of each of these highly embellished compositions was the sense that all embellishment had been built upon a solid foundation of multi-voice counterpoint. Instead, all the listener could register was an emphatic account of the upper voice (which, unfortunately, was never really a “singing” voice in the Schumann transcription), while all of the delicious interplay of the inner voices was lost in an obfuscating blur of elaborate arpeggios.
A bit more clarity emerged in her account of Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 14, which he called “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.” In this case, however, what was lacking was a clear sense of pulse, both at the slow pace of the introduction and at the much faster pace of the rondo. In the absence of that pulse, Lundtvedt could not provide an adequate presentation of the imaginative rhythmic devices that Mendelssohn had engaged in his score. This left the listener with a reading that offered up a generous supply of precision but very little by way of music.
To be fair, however, none of this seemed to dampen audience enthusiasm. Lundtvedt received rousing ovations simply for her athletic prowess. Still, it was clear from her Beethoven that she could deliver much more; and perhaps one day she will be able to sustain that delivery across an entire program.