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Beethoven, Bach, and beyond: Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival

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Posted: Friday, July 18, 2014 5:00 am

This week the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival begins its 42nd installment, which will purvey about 100 compositions in the course of 38 performances in town before it reaches its conclusion on Aug. 25 — not counting four youth concerts, four run-outs to Albuquerque, and some public reading sessions with young composers. Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms all make out pretty well in the programming this year, at least ostensibly. At first glance, Bach seems to be the focus of five concerts in a series called Bach Plus. Of the bunch, a July 26 recital by pianist Benjamin Hochman holds particular promise, comprising as it does two of the composer’s not overvisited keyboard partitas and, by way of surprising contrast, a little-played Bach-inspired suite written in 1952 by dodecaphonist Luigi Dallapiccola, the Quaderno Musicale di Annalibera. But Bach Plus ends up being as much “plus” as “Bach.” Two of the Bach Plus programs contain no music at all by Johann Sebastian — mysterious, no? — and two others divide between them his six Brandenburg Concertos in what will be at least the fourth complete go-round of that set hereabouts in the course of the past year. All things considered, it might be more accurate to think of this series as Half Bach rather than Bach Plus.

The programmatic focus that will be played out most forcefully this year, particularly during the final week of the season, involves late works by Beethoven. Like Bach, Beethoven is hardly underrepresented in town throughout the year, but the compositions of his late period hold considerable challenge for performers and are accordingly doled out mostly on special occasions. The idea that Beethoven had a definable “late period” took hold among commentators practically as his coffin was being lowered into the ground, and it was soon embraced to mean the works he wrote from about 1813 through his death in 1827 — or, to translate that into opus numbers (at least those that correctly reflect the compositions’ chronology), from about op. 90 to op. 135. Even after nearly two centuries of refinement, the “periodicity” of Beethoven’s production remains largely accepted. Most musicians and historians can agree that the style of the last period often displays radical structural innovation, superdense knitting of material, abruptness of musical contrast, lyrical passages of remarkable abandon, and abiding fascination with the dramatic power of fugue. In the course of the coming six weeks, listeners will be able to catch an extensive representation of these visionary pieces. Of his late string quartets, the festival presents those in A Minor (op. 132), played by the Orion String Quartet on July 31, and in F Major (op. 135), played by the Dover Quartet on Aug. 20. Of his late piano sonatas, we are given those in E Major (op. 109), by Joseph Kalichstein on Aug. 20; in A-flat Major (op. 110), by Alessio Bax on July 29; and in C Minor (op. 111), by William Kinderman on Aug. 22. From elsewhere in his piano oeuvre come his Bagatelles (op. 126), performed by Kalichstein on Aug. 20, and his Diabelli Variations (op. 120), offered by Kinderman on Aug. 22. Back to the realm of chamber music proper, listeners may encounter his G-Major Violin Sonata (op. 96) on Aug. 21, featuring Benjamin Beilman, and his D-Major Cello Sonata (op. 102, no. 2) on Aug. 21, with Ronald Thomas — in both cases assisted by Kalichstein. His Archduke Trio (op. 96) also gets worked through on Aug. 21, and his Ghost Trio (op. 70, no. 1) makes an appearance on Aug. 24, both standing near the starting point of the late style. Even a chamber music rarity gets a brief moment in the sun: the D-Major Fugue for String Quintet, a work composed in 1817 but not published until shortly after the composer’s death, when the publisher assigned it the opus number 137; violist Cynthia Phelps will assist the Dover Quartet in dusting it off on Aug. 20. If that’s not enough Beethoven for you, you might also dip into a couple of his much earlier compositions, his Piano Quartet (op. 16) on July 24 and his Clarinet Trio (op. 11, with David Shifrin) on Aug. 6.

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