Crow and Chiu play Beethoven live and in person

The performance is almost incidental to the miracle of live music.

Please let me never become blasé, never lose my sense of wonder and gratitude, inured to magic. This is a privilege. I was stunned that not only the Toronto Summer Music Festival personnel but also both of the artists (Philip Chiu and Jonathan Crow) thanked me for being there. I hope I remember this when we’re back to “normal”, and larger crowds push us all further apart.

My wife doubted whether this was safe, to be going to an indoor concert. But we adhered to the safety guidelines, rattling around inside a big church like the beans in maracas.

I had the best seat imaginable, directly in front of them as you can see from the picture I snapped before shutting off my phone.

A masked Jonathan Crow making adjustments before playing. Note: he and Philip Chiu would remove their masks to play.

There were perhaps 20 of us in Grace Church on-the-Hill.

Did I mention that I feel like a lucky guy?

The fact we were attending a concert at 10:00 a.m. adds to the magic. My first concert in over a year felt like rebirth in the stillness of the church. Oh yes, it’s also my first time in a church since early 2020. I pulled out the hymnal to have a look, awed by the stained glass and the beautiful space.

Violinist Jonathan Crow
Pianist Philip Chiu

We listened to Jonathan Crow and Philip Chiu play two sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven plus a piece, excuse the pun, from Jessie Montgomery.

Beethoven – Sonata for Piano and Violin, No. 2 in A Major, Op. 12
Montgomery – Peace
Beethoven – Sonata for Piano and Violin, No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47 “Kreutzer”

We began with a sonata as fresh as our new beginning. When I look at Beethoven’s list of works, the Op 12 sonatas (his first three) date from late in the 18th century just after the three Op 10 piano sonatas and just before the Pathetique piano sonata. The opus numbers are a bit tricky, given that opus #15 is assigned to the first piano concerto, which dates from earlier in the decade. Haydn, who supposedly taught Beethoven in the 1790s, is still very much an influence in the comical flourishes, the witty dialogue between violin and piano, and a light texture. Yet as Crow remarked it’s very true that even if both sonatas are in A major, they’re very different.

Montgomery’s Peace is an aptly titled work that served us as a bit of an interlude, a rest for the ear between the two big Sonatas.

Composer Jessie Montgomery

I wanted it to be more than just a mouthful of baguette to cleanse the palate, a deliberate contrast to the intensity of the works on either side, yet even that was welcome. We listen to calmly melodic left-hand figures from the pianist, setting up clusters that follow, against gentle melodic playing from the violin. It’s a tonal work to contrast the two brilliant A-major sonatas in its mellow laid-back sound. It’s never strident nor angry, never very loud, but instead true to its name, a sotto voce meditation.

We’re well prepared by Peace for Sonata #9 and its ostentatious melodrama, seeming to tell a story through music. The outer movements are larger than life in their construction, the first movement sometimes seeming to shift emotional gears as abruptly as a slap in the face, gut-wrenchingly anguished. The middle movement consists of a series of variations, an oasis of tranquility before the third movement’s wild ride to the finish.

I couldn’t help thinking, how does one choose to reconcile different works of a composer, how to play the early works of a composer still finding his authentic voice, if one was also undertaking one of his most accomplished works? We’re looking back from 250 years later, hearing Beethoven not just as the heir to Mozart or Haydn, but as the eventual creator of huge symphonies, and his influence on those who follow. Excuse me if I’m prematurely suggesting a bigger discussion from a single concert, but Crow and Chiu present this concert as part of the complete Beethoven cycle. Tafelmusik took years to complete their survey of the Beethoven Symphonies. We had the magical experience of hearing Stewart Goodyear play all 32 piano sonatas in a single day. Does one play the early works with the same assumptions as the late ones, or does one differentiate between the stylistic norms of the times? Can one look at a work from the 1790s vs one after 1800 when Beethoven leaped ahead in his development? I wonder if this is confused or confounded by hindsight, that shows us who Beethoven would become.

I’m perhaps overthinking all of this, coming to the concert after a huge break spent deep inside my navel.

But I’m sensitive to the choices Crow and Chiu made, that likely must be consistent with what they’re doing in this series, choices they have to make for the whole set of sonatas. So indeed, they do not come at the young Beethoven as though they were players of his time, but instead seem to play with the same interpretive assumptions on this piece as they will later in the concert with a more mature composition. It’s all from the same big book of sonatas, one might argue, as seen from a distance. Conversely, I wonder if we can imagine the cognitive dissonance implicit in playing the youthful Beethoven the way one plays in the 1790s, and then playing the middle period or later Beethoven in another way. Crow and Chiu are not time-travelers even if musical scores do sometimes allow us to imaginatively time-travel. And so they opted to be consistent across Beethoven. I say this, as I observed their choice to play the light-hearted earlier work with a romantic approach: which maybe tells you next to nothing. I’m calling attention to a couple of things. They were ready to enlarge the dynamic range, to be very soft at times, to show due respect for Beethoven and what he would become. And occasionally they toyed with the tempi. Maybe I’m erroneous to think that Mozart & Haydn are more rigorous in their symmetry, that one aims to play the exposition exactly as fast as the recapitulation, and that a classical reading of Beethoven or Schubert aims to honour the structure where possible, rather than inserting anything expressive, rubati, expressive moments that resist the classical rigor. But I say “romantic” to suggest that Crow & Chiu attack Beethoven never underestimating the young composer and always ready for something deep. For the Op 47 Kreutzer Sonata, we’re rewarded not just with the accurate playing but an approach to the sonata matching its melodrama. The duo seemed to make tempo changes as though motivated by raw emotion, sometimes whispering, sometimes issuing enormous surges in the dynamics. The early morning performance seemed that much more spontaneous, more organic, as though the pair were of one mind. The ff from the piano in the opening movement were not spoiled by being telegraphed in any way from the two calmly deadpan players, utterly surprising the way they erupted. It’s as much the drama that Beethoven composed as the theatre that Crow and Chiu portrayed for us.

I had a socially distanced schmooze afterwards, more than a bit star-struck. Luckily I had my mask on, which served to conceal one’s facial expressions. More and more, I understand the attraction of masquerade parties.

If you have a chance to catch any of the concerts this week you won’t see better music-making (as if there were any alternatives as of July 2021), especially when you factor in the additional intimacy of the space with small audiences. The Festival concludes on Sunday August 1st.

For further information and tickets go to their website.

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