Pro Musica Rara's strings give fine sound to Beethoven

April 03, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

The best case for original instruments in yesterday's Pro Musica Rara concert at the Baltimore Museum of Art was made in its performance of Beethoven's Piano Quartet in E-flat (opus 16), which concluded the program.

This work is really the Quintet for Piano and Winds in the composer's own arrangement for piano and strings. It is invariably believed thought much inferior to the original because -- compared to the version using winds -- the strings make opus 16 sound too homogenous, thus robbing it of color, and because the piano's sonority too easily swamps that of the violin, viola and cello.

The version with winds is better, but yesterday's performance by violinist Gregory Mulligan, violist Sharon Pineo Myer, cellist Allen Whear and fortepianist Shirley Mathews made an unusually strong case for the alternate.

The fortepiano is not the overwhelmingly powerful instrument that its direct descendant, the grand piano, is. Moreover, the way early string instruments are played -- on gut strings instead of steel ones and with much less vibrato -- creates string sounds more individual than those produced by the post-Romantic approach familiar to our ears.

It didn't hurt matters that the performance was a fine one. Mathews' playing was her best of the afternoon -- sensitive, serene (in the slow movement), sufficiently powerful and nicely paced. Mulligan -- whose performances were consistently beautiful throughout the program -- characterized his part admirably, Whear's cello playing was responsive to that of his partners and Myer was more consistently in tune than she was earlier in the afternoon.

The performances on the first half of the program were much less convincing. As this listener heard the spindly, out-of-tune sound emerging from Mathews' reproduction of an Anton Walter piano (made in Vienna in 1790) in Mozart's Trio in E (K. 542), he became a believer in the idea of progress and learned to respect the Industrial Revolution.

An early Beethoven duo -- with the fascinating sobriquet, "Duet with two Eyeglasses Obbligato" -- for viola and cello was somewhat easier to listen to. But violist Myer, who was not as successful as cellist Whear in keeping her gut-stringed instrument in tune, made one understand the origin of viola jokes.

Mulligan's polished, urbane and witty performance, with Mathews, of the 23-year-old Beethoven's Rondo in G for Violin and Clavier seemed wasted on so insignificant a work.

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