Guest violinist Veronika Eberle solost in Beethoiven's "Violin Concerto" with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, June 13, 2024. (credit: Raftermen)

Veronika Eberle plays innovative cadenzas at odds with Beethoven’s classicism in ASO season finale

CONCERT REVIEW:
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
June 13, 15 & 16, 2024
Atlanta Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center
Atlanta, Georgia – USA

Nathalie Stutzmann, conductor; Veronika Eberle, violin; David Coucheron, violin; Joseph McFadden, contrabass; Michael Stubbart, timpani.
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto (Cadenzas by Jörg Widmann)
Maurice RAVEL: Menuet antique (1929)
Maurice RAVEL: Alborada del gracioso (“Morning Song of the Jester”) (1918)
Igor STRAVINSKY: The Firebird (1919)

Mark Gresham | 14 JUN 2024

During Beethoven’s lifetime, the solo performer in a concerto was typically expected to improvise or otherwise create cadenzas that suited their technical skills and interpretive styles while remaining consistent with the composer’s work. That would have certainly been the case for Beethoven’s friend, the Austrian violinist Franz Clement (1780-1842), who commissioned and premiered his Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61—despite the violinist’s known penchant for clever showmanship antics such as playing on one string with the violin upside-down during intermission.

In the early decades following Beethoven’s death, violinists such as Joseph Joachim created cadenzas for the Violin Concerto that were noted for their respect for the original material and classical approach.

However, as the Romantic era progressed, the nature of cadenzas began to change. Virtuoso performers such as Niccolò Paganini (1782- 1840) and Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908) wrote cadenzas that showcased their technical prowess, often introducing more extravagant passages that began to diverge more from the composer’s original style, emphasizing the performer’s individuality and technical brilliance.


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Later, violinists Eugène Ysaÿe (1858 – 1931), Fritz Kreisler (1875 – 1962), and Jascha Heifetz (1901 – 1987) would come to create cadenzas that not only showcased virtuosity but also included modern harmonic and technical elements that moved further away from the strict classical style, incorporating more contemporary techniques and personal stylistic innovations. More recently, composer Alfred Schnittke (1934 – 1998) created a set of controversial cadenzas characterized by his distinct 20th-century style.

Yet, in the interim, there has also been a significant counter-movement towards greater authenticity and historical accuracy in classical music, including the performance of cadenzas, which emerged in the mid-20th century and has grown in prominence since then.

That brings us to the present day and this week’s season finale performances by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by music director Nathalie Stutzmann, as heard on Thursday night at Symphony Hall.

As you may already have guessed, the program opened with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. The featured soloist was 35-year-old German violinist Veronika Eberle, who brought with her a set of cadenzas she commissioned from 50-year-old German composer and clarinetist Jörg Widmann. It was the US premiere of Widmann’s cadenzas, which feature the relative novelty of including timpani, a solo contrabass, and a second violin part—performed in this instance by timpanist Michael Stubbart, contrabassist Joseph McFadden, and concertmaster David Coucheron.


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As innovative as this concertino element may seem, the addition of timpani to the violin’s cadenza in the first movement is hardly new. Credit for that innovation belongs to Austrian violinist Wolfgang Schneiderhan (1915 – 2002) with his mid-20th-century cadenzas for Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, which is curiously also a transcription of the piano cadenzas Beethoven himself wrote for a piano and orchestra version of the work—there exist no violin cadenzas for the concerto in Beethoven’s own hand.

Jörg Widmann  in 2006. (Wikipedia, license: CC BY-SA 2.5)

Jörg Widmann in 2006. (Wikipedia, license: CC BY-SA 2.5)

Widmann’s cadenzas go a step further with the addition of contrabass and second violin, elaborating further, well outside the realms of classical authenticity, deliberately stamping them with a 21st-century character.

Unfortunately, that clashed with Beethoven’s style rather than creatively extending it, so they came off as change for change’s sake rather than adding insight into one of the major concerti in Western music—although they were well-played. Furthermore, Stubbart was obliged to move to a second set of timpani near the stage’s apron on the right side (from the audience’s viewpoint). Likewise, McFadden had to move his contrabass to the apron near Stubbart for their parts in these cadenzas. That felt a bit contrived. Couchron was able to remain in his familiar concertmaster position near Eberle.

The music in Widmann’s cadenzas would have been fine as a basis for a stand-alone piece as an interesting exploration of Beethoven’s themes and motifs. But in the context of cadenzas within the concerto, it felt really misguided.

This was not Ms. Eberle’s first appearance with the ASO. Her debut appearance with the orchestra was in November 2018 as an emerging artist when her superb Brahms’ Violin Concerto performance was totally on fire. She remains an emerging talent to watch, but she was not quite there on Thursday compared to her 2018 appearance. She occasionally lost her intonation; sometimes, it felt like she had run out of a bow and dropped a note or two. But neither were terrible flaws; her capabilities otherwise shone well. The fundamental mistake was the cadenzas, which seemed, by their intervention, to somewhat deflate a genuine masterwork.


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After intermission, a pair of short pieces by Maurice Ravel—Menuet antique (1929) and Alborada del gracioso (“Morning Song of the Jester”—sounded a bit clunky with odd emphasis on accents: important ones, especially in the violins, were lost, yet in other sections they were too prominent. Stutzmann seemed to be playing up the music’s angularities; in doing so, she took away much of the French flavor of the works, leaving them absent the characteristic lightness and the composer’s signature cleverness. Both are very likable pieces by Ravel—but not performed this way.

Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, in its 1919 version, was mostly fine, and Stutzmann mostly controlled the dynamics well, but again with a preference for the loud sections (“Infernal Dance of King Kastchel” and end of the “Finale”). Balances were a concern, and, as in the Ravel, she emphasized the wrong things, such as accents, where she over-emphasized them rather than letting them be accents. When she does this, it pulls apart the organicness of a piece, making it a less musical experience. She did achieve an effective ending with the secure final section of the “Finale,” just in time for end-of-concert.

It was not a successful concert for me, especially as a season finale. But Stutzmann’s acolytes (whom you can easily spot scattered amongst the audience) leaped to their collective feet to ensure several curtain calls.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will repeat the program tonight, Saturday, June 15 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunay afternoon June 16 at 3:00 p.m.

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About the author:
Mark Gresham is publisher and principal writer of EarRelevant. He began writing as a music journalist over 30 years ago, but has been a composer of music much longer than that. He was the winner of an ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music journalism in 2003.

Read more by Mark Gresham.
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