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Beaux Arts Trio at the Library of Congress

Glacial air swept into the District of Columbia yesterday, which meant that my walk up to the Library of Congress was that much quicker of step. Having grown up in the great state of Michigan, I am not bothered enough by the cold of the mild Washington winter to wear a coat, usually until January. Well, I was wishing that I had not vainly left the house with only a blazer, as the temperature dropped. Instead of staying at home, running hot water to make sure that the pipes don't freeze, I went without a reserved seat to hear the Beaux Arts Trio. Usually, I am able to do this and still get a good seat (even for a big event like Thomas Hampson's recital). This night, I and about 15 other unfortunate souls had to listen to the first piece on the program via the television in the waiting room.

It was Haydn's Trio in A Major, Hob. XV:18, an entertaining amuse-gueule from an era when chamber music was less for serious thought and more for diversion. It was good listening in this rendition, especially the moody, sad, minor-key second movement (Andante) and the slapstick hiccup-like gestures of the third movement (Allegro). (Composers now might do well to remember this attitude, that perhaps it is enough merely to entertain, provided that you do it brilliantly.) As I watched the current members of this most famous trio—pianist Menahem Pressler, still hard at it almost a year after his 80th birthday, superlative cellist Antonio Meneses, and violinist Daniel Hope—I couldn't help but wonder why in the world all of these concerts are not broadcast, instead of only on the library's single television. (I suppose that, since I live in Washington, my interest should be in keeping the Library of Concert series exclusive. After all, a performer surely would think differently about appearing there if he knew that it involved a nationwide broadcast.)

Happily, I was able to get a seat in time for the work I had really come to hear, Dmitri Shostakovich's Trio No. 2 in E Minor, op. 67, the substantial main course that followed the fluffy treat of Haydn, from an era when chamber music was no longer only for distracting noble ears from boredom. (The group made a recording of this piece, back in 1991.) In the summer of 1944, Shostakovich was mourning a musicologist friend named Ivan Sollertinsky, who had died in a Nazi concentration camp in February. The first movement begins sotto voce, with the cello's fragile harmonics, perilously high on the A string. This is then interwoven with the violin on its lowest string, creating the inversion of the normal tonal order because it is playing underneath the cello. The piano joins them, rumbling in very low octaves.

The triple-meter second movement (Allegro non troppo) is expressionistic, with fantastic accented gestures. The large tonal chords at the opening of the third movement (Largo) are gradually clouded by dissonant sounds, focused especially on the half-step le-sol, as the strings enter. However, it is the fourth movement (Allegretto) that truly impressed me, a setting of a Hebrew melody in honor of Sollertinsky's Jewish heritage. The regular quadruple meter is subjected to ambiguous rhythmic and harmonic transformations (even shifting into 5/4 at times) that remind me at times of Satie's music (e.g., the Gnossiennes). Although the tune is used as a sort of danse macabre, building to a dramatic climax, the piece ultimately shimmers away into radiant major chords. It was a stunning performance that received the most forceful ovation of the evening, which was well deserved.

The concept of the program, I discovered after intermission, was apparently to show the two sides of chamber music described above. The second half featured a parallel presentation of diverting chamber music, a "fiddle sonata" by Mark O'Connor, followed by serious chamber music, also a lament, Dvořák's Dumky Trio. To rearrange the program to form a chiasmus (e.g., diversion-transcendence-transcendence-diversion) might have been more rhetorically convincing than this parallel presentation, but that would have required either beginning with the Shostakovich (a faux pas in concert programming) or ending with the O'Connor (eww!). The latter would have placed an uncomfortable emphasis on the least interesting piece on the program (according to the composer's Web site, the entire piece lasts a ghastly 20 minutes).

Available from Amazon:
Antonín Dvořák, Complete Piano Trios, Beaux Arts Trio (recorded in 1996)
Ludwig van Beethoven, Complete Piano Trios, Beaux Arts Trio (recorded in 2001)
As Daniel Hope explained before beginning the second half, he and Pressler were going to play only the first two movements (all four were listed in the program) of O'Connor's Fiddle Sonata for Violin and Piano (1998), because of the "great length of the Shostakovich and Dvořák trios on the program." What a relief! The monochromatic first movement (Introduction for Gustavo) presented the same New Age colors and patterns over and over. (It was apparently difficult to follow because of its repetitiveness: consummate page turner Elmer Booze went to remove a large-format page too early, at which Menahem Pressler grabbed brusquely to keep it in front of him.) The second movement (Hoedown) was no better from my perspective, since it uses its folk material in the least complex way. O'Connor's music has its interest (his Appalachian folk-inspired idiom has been featured in his own Olympic Reel for the Atlanta Olympics ceremonies, as well as in John Williams's score for The Patriot), but with all due respect to him, if I wanted to listen to this kind of music, I would be spending my evenings at concerts hosted by these people and not with the Beaux Arts Trio. No, thank you.

Having been mercifully spared half of O'Connor's hors-d'œuvre, we moved on with relish to something we could sink our teeth into, Antonín Dvořák's Trio No. 4 in E Minor, op. 90 ("Dumky"), premiered in Prague in 1891. It is a group of movements inspired by the Ukrainian folk lament, the dumka (plural, dumky), also used by Dvořák in his symphonies and in the "Slavonic" Quartet, op. 51, played here by the Panocha Quartet in October. This performance was a vivid delight, alternating between moments of stark sadness and light-hearted "Viennese salon" sounds. Pressler's sound, garnered from 50 years of experience in chamber music, can be overwhelmingly powerful or absolutely transparent as it needs to be. (On this topic, see my post on his advice to a young chamber musician on the radio show From the Top.) With surprising regularity, Pressler turns his head from his music and the keyboard to his colleagues to watch for and give cues. Daniel Hope showed many good sides of his playing here, too, but it was the gorgeous tone of Antonio Meneses's playing that impressed me the most.

After much applause, Menahem Pressler announced in a hushed voice that we are coming up on the birthday (December 17) of Ludwig van Beethoven, so they offered us a breathless but controlled encore rendition of the last movement (Presto) from his string trio, op. 1, no. 2. Even though their third recording of the complete Beethoven trios (shown above) is from 2001, that was with different string players from those assembled here. (Their second complete Beethoven, recorded in 1981, is available at a third of the price.)

See also Gail Wein's review (Beaux Arts Trio's Singular Devotion to Collaboration, December 16) for the Washington Post.

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