The Seattle Times: Next at the Tractor Tavern: fortepiano and cello

CONCERT PREVIEW

‘BEETHOVEN, Period’

8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 2, Tractor Tavern, 5213 Ballard Ave N.W., Seattle; $20 (206- 789-3599 or tractortavern.com).

When two artists title their concert “BEETHOVEN, Period,” it’s reasonable to assume that they’re referring to Beethoven as the end-all and be-all of composers. Or perhaps they’re alluding to his pivotal position as the “bridge” composer between the classical and romantic periods.

While Grammy-nominated cellist Matt Haimovitzand pianist and NPR host Christopher O’Rileywould hardly dispute Beethoven’s compositional supremacy, the title actually refers to their exploration of his sonatas and variations for piano and cello on period instruments. In advance of the release of their double-disc high-resolution recording on Pentatone, the duo arrives at the Tractor Tavern in Seattle on Monday, Feb. 2, to perform Beethoven’s music as the composer expected it to be heard.

Haimovitz’s precious Goffriller cello, which dates from 1710, 60 years before Beethoven’s birth, will be outfitted with authentic ox-gut strings, just as in Beethoven’s day. His bow, too, will be from the same era. Sonically, these changes are like night and day.

“I love the gut so much!” Haimovitz exclaimed in a conference call that included his duo partner. “Gut is so much more human to me, and it allows me so much more flexibility and range of attack and resonance. My fear with gut strings all along was that I was going to lose my voice. Quite the opposite has happened. More and more, I’m finding that the sound of gut strings is my ideal.”

That’s quite a switch for someone who wrote his graduate thesis on Beethoven at Harvard 25 years ago, and who has struggled ever since with the fact that, in Beethoven, a cello outfitted with modern metal strings does not balance well with a modern piano.

O’Riley, in turn, will play an authentic fortepiano, whose sound Beethoven also had in mind. Tuning a microtone lower than “modern pitch” will further replicate the sound of Beethoven’s era.

“There’s a whole world of color and articulation available when you’re not having to worry 80 percent of the time whether you’ll be heard or not,” he says of the period instruments’ superior blend. “If I had known 30 years ago what I know now, I wouldn’t have had to deal with the fact that the modern Steinway’s bass, as much as I love it, is at complete odds with a lot of Beethoven’s music. On the fortepiano, the bass is still penetrating, but the upper, lyric registers are much more singing.”

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All of this talk may seem a little highfalutin’ for an evening in a honky-tonk bar, but Haimovitz has nothing but praise for the Tractor. At the forefront of musicians who brought classical to new audiences in nontraditional venues, he discovered the Tractor some years back when he played the Bach Cello Suites there. He’s been back several times since.

“It’s really one of my favorite alternate venues to play,” he says. “The people are really passionate about music. It’s great energy and a great, fun vibe.”

Since he no longer needs to struggle to be heard over a 9-foot concert grand, and O’Riley no longer has to hold back, their vibes, too, should be quite high. What better place to perform music that took the piano/cello combination to new heights?

“There’s a sense in these groundbreaking pieces that Beethoven is pushing the limits of what the instruments can do separately and together,” says Haimovitz. “When we play the slow movement of the last sonata, I don’t think you have to know anything about music to just close your eyes and take in such a hauntingly beautiful sound world.”

Jason Victor Serinus writes about classical music and high-end audio for publications worldwide. Reach him at jserinus@gmail.com.

By Jason Victor Serinus

Read at: The Seattle Times

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