A Concert of Beethoven and Crumb

Why play the music of Beethoven alongside that of the 20th/ 21st Century composer George Crumb (born 1929)? Pianist Paavali Jumppanen, who is currently undertaking a residency at the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) in South Melbourne, believes(according  to the program notes) that both composers share a similar deep worldly human experience. In an interview he said, ‘When we listen to Beethoven’s Ninth  Symphony it is a journey from darkness to light on a grand scale. And in the end we see the components of society joining in a celebration of brotherhood and so on. It is right there, even though the piece is called a symphony. With Crumb’s Macrocosmos III the journey is more intricate; we are in the middle of an African jungle, and then we are in the middle of some sort of spiritual celebration …’

The concert started with Beethoven, the Emperor piano concerto (number 5 in Eb opus 73). It’s a longtime  since I’ve heard a live performance of this well-known work. Jumppanen is recognised for his performance of Beethoven’s works, having performed internationally all of the concertos and chamber sonatas. On this occasion he worked with the ANAM orchestra and the performance was as it might have been in Beethoven’s day – conducted from the piano by the soloist with no separate conductor. This was a great achievement for the fairly large orchestra of 15 violins, 6 violas, 5 celli, 2 double basses and the usual complement of woodwind and brass. The timpani play an important role in this piece. To the credit of the student orchestra, led by Kyla Matsura-Miller, everyone played together as though it were apiece of chamber music. Jumppanen’s playing was brilliant; the scale passages were fluid and rippling. Because he was conducting from the piano and all of the orchestra members needed to see him, the lid couldn’t be raised in the usual way. Nevertheless, the balance seemed just right.

George Crumb’s Makrocosmos III was completed in 1974. There are five movements: Nocturnal Sounds, Wanderer-Fantasy, The Advent(including Hymn for the Nativity of the Star-Child), Myth and Music of the Starry Night. It is performed my two prepared pianos and a large variety of percussion instruments including gong and tubular bells – I was amused to see that ‘percussion’ included slide whistles –percussion players have to be versatile. Three movements are based on poems by Quasimodo, Pascal and Rilke. I had expected the ‘Wanderer Fantasy’ movement to relate to the technically challenging piano piece of that name written by Schubert, but in fact the Crumb movement was very different, being the most calm and dream-like of the five movements. Likewise, I had thought that ‘Music of a Starry Night’ might relate to the Van Gough painting of that name – indeed, it did for me, the piano strings, covered with paper, gave a surreal effect and the percussion was bright and scintillating. I found this movement the most interesting. The whole piece is described by the composer as a ‘cosmic drama’,  influenced by the work of Bartok, whose piano pieces, Microcosmos, were much admired by Crumb.