Saturday, November 7, 2009

Music review: Cellist deMaine's Beethoven survey exciting, important

Cellist Robert deMaine.

By Greg Stepanich

One of the benefits of a complete-works concert series is that a composer's achievement can be measured not only in a specific genre but against itself.

But getting a good assessment is only possible if the pieces are played well enough for the performers almost to drop away and leave the music standing alone, alive and independent, making its own proud representation.

In his traversal of the complete works for cello and piano of Beethoven, which began Thursday and concludes tonight, the cellist Robert deMaine makes a supremely passionate argument for the greatness of these works, and he succeeds in every respect. With pianist Heather Coltman, deMaine on Thursday crafted an evening of three sonatas and a set of variations that was at once a fulfilling musical pilgrimage and a historical survey of the most rewarding kind, in which Beethoven's power and inventiveness could be heard to their best effect.

Thursday night's concert at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Boca Raton opened with two early works, the First Sonata (in F, Op. 5, No. 1) and a set of a dozen variations on the familiar tune Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen from Mozart's The Magic Flute, as catchy then as it is now. DeMaine, who has been the principal cellist of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra since 2002, demonstrated from the very beginning the distinctive characteristics of his sound: intense and highly focused, yet at the same time warm and engaging.

The essential bigness of the sound he is able to produce could be heard even such small moments as three little grace notes, each note in a fast, throwaway broken-chord figuration, and the opening phrase of the slow, minor-key variation in the middle of the work. Like all the Beethoven accompanied cello works, the piano gets a tremendous, showy workout, and Coltman (at right), who is a formidable technician, played with impressive sparkle and strength, as she did throughout the concert.

The F major sonata that followed continued the feeling of good spirits and dazzling invention, with a muscular performance by both musicians that underlined in a forceful way the skill of a composer who could write with this kind of scope and majesty in 1796, outclassing every other composer in Europe with the possible exception of Haydn. A more integrated work than the Mädchen variations, the sonata is a partnership in every way between cello and piano, and it has a symphonic breadth that deMaine and Coltman fully understood and conveyed.

Along with that came some balance questions, with Coltman occasionally overwhelming deMaine and the two together playing a little too loudly at climactic points in the music, obscuring its shape. But this proved to be a temporary problem of adjustment to the hall and each other's styles; by the end of the concert this was no longer a problem.

The Fourth Sonata (in C, Op. 1o2, No. 1) followed the intermission, and like all of Beethoven's late music it is full of quirks and innovatory boldness. DeMaine and Coltman were up to its considerable challenges and difficulties. The first movement was gritty and strong, with the march-like opening of the main theme nicely contrasted with its tender second half.

Particularly gratifying in this performance was the beautifully judged reading of the Adagio and Andante, providing one of the few moments in all of these works for sustained slow music; here, deMaine's sound was perfectly suited to the yearning motif of the Andante, however brief. And although deMaine's very high triplets in the final movement were just a shade under pitch, overall this was an interpretation of this difficult work that was notable for athleticism, suppleness and grace.

One especially good moment came in the sequence of repeated drone fifths in surprising keys that distinguish the finale. Beethoven uses these to clear the tonal air and bring in new music and a whole new mood. DeMaine's tuning was precise and the sound quality consistent, which is vital to getting across the marvelous effect Beethoven was looking for.

The C major sonata had the same hugeness from the two players that was evident in the F major sonata, but the final work, the familiar Third Sonata (in A, Op. 69), was much more balanced, and beautifully so.

This was one of the better readings of the sonata I have ever heard in live recital, an interpretation that had a serene kind of grandeur in the first movement, exciting rhythmic tension in the second, and a feeling of expansive joy in the finale, with deMaine playing the fall-of-a-seventh four-note motif in the middle with scrupulous accuracy and ingratiating warmth.

As an encore, Coltman and deMaine played the rondo of the Second Sonata (in G minor, Op. 5, No. 2), which also is on tonight's program. Although deMaine joked that perhaps the audience of about 100 had heard enough Beethoven for a night, they didn't say so, and indeed the movement had all of the virtues of the sonatas and variation set that preceded it: Excellent musicianship in the service of a composer whose work could be revealed for its originality because of their great skill at bringing it across.

Like the complete Well-Tempered Clavier that a Russian pianist offered to area audiences a couple seasons back, a chance to hear a complete corpus of work like this is rare and welcome. Concertgoers interested in the Beethoven cello works will want to make tonight's concert if possible to hear the remaining four; this stands fair to be an important local musical event that will be remembered for some time to come.

Robert deMaine and Heather Coltman continue their survey of the complete Beethoven works for cello and piano tonight with the See, the Conqu'ring Hero Comes Variations (Op. 45), the Sonata No. 2 (in G minor, Op. 5, No. 2), the variations on Bei Männern, welche Liebe Fühlen, from Mozart's The Magic Flute (WoO 46), and finally, the Sonata No. 5 (in D, Op. 102, No. 2). 8 pm, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Boca Raton. Tickets: $25. For more information, call 482-2001 or visit

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