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10.10.05

Beaux Arts Trio at the National Gallery

Beaux Arts Trio, not taken at the National GalleryIt had been almost a year since the last time we had heard the Beaux Arts Trio here in Washington, last December at the Library of Congress. Naturally, we leapt at the chance to hear them again last night, in the free concert series at the National Gallery of Art. The program (.PDF file) was a three-course meal of great trios, any one of which could have anchored an excellent program. The combination of all three together was a welcome surfeit of excellent music, rendered with consummate grace and skill by this most famous trio, whose pianist is still playing phenomenally well in spite of having celebrated his 80th birthday two years ago.

First on our plate was Bohuslav Martinů's first trio, subtitled Cinq pièces brèves, from 1930. In his brief introductory comments, violinist Daniel Hope felt the need to give us some biographical background only on Martinů and this work. Immediately thereafter, the three musicians launched into the percussive mania of the first of these brief pieces, in precisely the style I would have welcomed amid the smooth and somber fare of the Takemitsu concert I heard Saturday night. The second movement provides the only moment of real repose, the lush song of the Adagio, before the piece proceeds with three concluding movements of rollicking fun. The performance, after a few moments for the musicians to adjust to the odd acoustic of the West Garden Court (with the audience facing backwards, that is, opposite from the normal direction, because of the Orsanmichele exhibit), was of very high quality.

In the second piece, Beethoven's E-flat major trio (op. 70, no. 2), from 1808, the Beaux Arts Trio was at the height of its game. This trio was rendered with a masterful sense of understatement, which is one of the qualities I most admire about this group. The technical details are almost all there, and there is a real sense of working together. The violin part, Daniel Hope realizes manifestly, is sometimes an accompaniment, and the piano, which could so easily swamp the two strings part together in sound, in Menahem Pressler's hands is made an equal voice. You can see this dialogue among the players, as they look toward one another as often as possible, but more importantly you can hear it in the sound they produce. This was most apparent in the soft and delicate performance of the opening Adagio cantabile, with Pressler's fluttering birdsong trills, but also in the melancholy Scherzo and the wild Finale.

Other Reviews:

Stephen Brookes, Beaux Arts Trio (Washington Post, October 11)
After intermission, we returned to find that the stage hands had placed a standing light, not unlike what one might find by a reading chair in a living room, next to cellist Antonio Meneses's bench. Evidently, he was as bothered by the unusually darkened lighting in the first half as I was. It was more suited to a Saturday night in a smoky piano bar than an NGA recital, I felt, and I was glad when the lights were set at a higher level for the second half. The final work on the program was one of the greatest trios ever composed, Schubert's Trio in E-Flat Major, op. 100, from the year of his death. The mood of the first movement is so tragic, especially in the opening of the somber development, which leads into a heroic section, with the return to the recapitulation prolonged through a variety of harmonic areas, adding to the sense of introspection, as if every facet of a personal emotion were being examined by the self. The melody of the crushingly tender second movement, Andante con moto, is justly famous and a treat to hear as it is developed endlessly, even returning in the fourth movement. Although there may be some fraying around the edges of Pressler's runs and arpeggios (and there are many such figures in the Schubert), this trio was superbly rendered.

As the Beaux Arts Trio brought out two encores, I had the same sensation I have had at warm and welcoming dinner parties with music, as just one more postprandial delight, either gustatory or auditory, is offered. You may think you can't possibly accept one more thing, but if Stephen Ackert, the director of the NGA's free concert series, had walked around with a tray of armagnacs instead of turning pages for Menahem Pressler, I would certainly have had to say yes. Musically, we were treated to single movements from two more trios -- the superfast, giocoso final movement of Haydn's A major trio (the same one, I believe, that they played last year at the Library of Congress), and the lovely Adagio of the Beethoven op. 11 trio. Both pieces were composed in the same decade (by the elder Haydn and the young Beethoven in 1794 and 1798, respectively), making them the earliest trios we heard that evening and, reflective of that era, more about diverting the ear than stirring the intellect. After such a feast, we went home well fed.


Additional Commentary by Jens F. Laurson:

When Menahem Pressler and 'his' Beaux Arts Trio call, the loyal Washington audience that remembers the Trio from its years of residence at the Library of Congress turns out in droves. Better even when the concert is free, as of course all the National Gallery of Art's Sunday performances are. The line to see what is the most renowned piano trio of the last 50 years reached all around the NGA's rotunda and back into the west wing's corridor. We can only guess what the line will be like when the Takács Quartet will come on Sunday, October 23. Since you must go hear them, go early, enjoy the art, and bring a friend and the Sunday newspaper to make the most out of the wait.

available at Amazon
F. Schubert, Complete Trios, Beaux Arts
available at Amazon
L. van Beethoven, Complete Piano Trios, Beaux Arts
Four "I"'s of Ionarts lit up when the program notes promised Martinů's first piano trio, Cinq pièces brèves. The 1930 composition is heavily jazz-influenced, jaunty, and over too quickly. In the opening Allegro moderato, violinist Daniel Hope overpowerd his lower-strung (cellist) colleague Antonio Meneses - but the right balance was found in the second movement and never lost. The old man, Menahem, is still plenty nimble-fingered and laid the foundation for his two colleagues in the grooving, heavily syncopated piano work of the Martinů.

From the very first notes of the heavenly Beethoven trio, op. 70, no. 2, the difference between the Beaux Arts (even in their third edition) and a merely 'good' piano trio was audible. The soft touches, the general accuracy, the loving attention to detail were all there. If gentle and quiet moments were slightly superior to the rest, it was only because the outbursts were swallowed by the accoustic. But even here the Beaux Arts played with intelligence and restraint that suggested familiarity with the venue.

At 81 3/4 years old, Mr. Pressler's dexterity is impresive. Musical insight and emotional efficiency easily conceal any dropped notes. Daniel Hope, meanwhile, far from being a patch to prolong the trio's lifespan beyond its expiration date, is a true asset. Refined and subtle (but hardly lacking in body) he set a sophisticated tone for the international bunch. Mr. Meneses was the cultivated musical partner in all this and through impeccable support drew little attention to himself and more to the music. All three dug deep into the formidable finale of the Beethoven and came up with plenty of excitement by not 'playing it safe'. The audience and we, naturally, loved it.

Beauty can be achieved in an infinite number of ways, but there are not many piano trios or even pieces of music of any sort where the description of beauty needs no words or explanation because the music speaks so eloquently for itself. I am talking about Schubert's Trio in E-flat Major - Schubert's first of only two - where that is exactly the case. You probably wouldn't have to drizzle out the piano runs as delicately as Pressler or switch so effortlessly between the energetically engaged and the lyrical as Hope, or use the cello with such jovially musical assurance as Meneses and the work would still enchant the listener entirely.

It is a very long chamber work - at almost 45 minutes it is longer than most symphonies at the time were... but there was not a moment that any of us had wished it was even a bar shorter. (As it was, I think the Beaux Arts Trio played the second version of the finale that did have 98 bars 'missing' - but no one felt cheated, either.) Hope's plaintive line in the last movement was taken with an amount of melancholy I have never heard before in the work - but it made just as much sense as any other approach I like. Delicate was once again the keywork, and smoother transitions between one section and another could not have been hoped for. Pizzicati were wistfully twitching in the irresistible rhythm. In all, a great success.

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