Just as familiar old paintings take on new life when centuries of grime are carefully removed from them, familiar old musical scores have a way of becoming fresher when centuries of performing traditions are erased. This process isn't easy. Players have to rethink just about everything, to learn their way around time-trapped instruments and historic concepts of music-making; listeners have to cope with different sounds and different manners of expression. Music long taken for granted is suddenly not so safe, comfortable and predictable.
For nearly three decades, Pro Musica Rara has enlivened the local concert scene with journeys into the past. On Sunday afternoon at Towson Presbyterian Church, to open its 29th season, the ensemble focused on Beethoven and scraped away a good deal of the varnish that has accumulated on some of his best-loved works.
You can almost always sense Beethoven struggling to break the bonds of convention, to stretch himself into uncharted expressive territory whenever - and however - his works are played. But on period instruments, that struggle gets more palpable. When, for example, Edmund Battersby tackled the Waldstein Sonata on a handsome reproduction (by Maine-based R. J. Regier) of a Graf fortepiano, circa 1830, you could feel Beethoven thinking literally outside the box.
On a fortepiano, you really feel Beethoven's daring, the strain to get sonic force out of a beautifully proportioned, wooden-framed casing. You also hear a range of tone coloring, especially on the soft end of the spectrum, that a grand piano cannot duplicate.
Battersby delivered a propulsive, thoughtful account of the sonata; a few blurred edges in the articulation proved insignificant. He also provided vivid support for his colleagues elsewhere in the program. The Archduke Trio, with violinist Ivan Stefanovic and cellist Allen Whear (Pro Musica Rara's new artistic director), emerged with abundant character. The string players had some trouble with intonation, a common problem when period instruments are employed, but phrasing was always sensitive to the score's poetic and aristocratic elements.
Stefanovic, Whear and Battersby also turned in a charming account of a gentle, single-movement Trio in B-flat. Whear and Battersby made an expressive pairing for the A major Cello Sonata, especially in the skittery scherzo.
The intimate, wood-beamed Towson Presbyterian Church is a visually fitting new venue for the ensemble, which had been using the Baltimore Museum of Art. But I wasn't entirely won over by the acoustics, which were on the dry side. A persistent fan noise didn't help. Still, the main thing is that the organization, which is facing "a very precarious situation" financially (in Whear's words to the audience), remains in the invaluable business of opening ears to the days and ways of old.
Last week's concerts included a memorable one at the Peabody Institute by the Aspen Ensemble, the first group to bear the name of one of America's most venerable enterprises, the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado. All the members are on the Aspen faculty.
The makeup of this quintet - flute, piano, violin, viola and cello - provides for interesting programming choices. For this occasion, on Wednesday, that meant two pieces with the flute at the center, one with strings alone, and one with keyboard and strings. The latter, Faure's surging Piano Quartet, inspired a taut, gripping performance by violinist David Perry, violist Victoria Chiang, cellist Michael Mermagen and pianist Rita Sloan (whose playing was especially warm and colorful).
Perry, Chiang and Mermagen tapped remarkable lyrical strengths in Beethoven's G major String Trio, Op. 9, No. 1, and tore into its finale with great panache. Flutist Nadine Asin wasn't terribly convincing as a jazzy stylist in David Schiff's After Hours (neither was Sloan), but she was all limpid-toned elegance for Mozart's Flute Quartet, with admirable supple partnering from the string players.