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Ionarts-at-Large: Boulanger Piano Trio

Chamber music in Munich is a rather dismal affair, necessitating occasional trips to the countryside to hear the likes of Kuss Quartet or Quatuor Ébène. Gauting is one of the more rewarding stops out there, with a discriminating and ambitious chamber season at the “Bosco Theater Forum”. With artists like Konstantin Lifschitz, Arabella Steinbacher, Antoine Tamestit, Ensemble Berlin, or regular guests Quatuor Ébène stopping by the little town some 11 miles southwest of Munich.

This time it was the Boulanger Piano Trio—on enthusiastic recommendation of a musical acquaintance who should know—that drew me out, offering a program of Beethoven, Brahms, and Shostakovich. The trip was easily worth it for the combination of supreme artlessness and great wit. The former was unintentionally supported by the bone-dry acoustic that gave no resonant support to the strings at all. Especially violinist Birgit Erz* looked and sounded as though she had to struggle against the ambience-less surroundings.

It was precisely that struggle that contributed so nicely to the earthy, unfussy, and direct sound, devoid of any beautification. Pianist Karla Haltenwanger supplied the playful wit, meanwhile… amply in the Beethoven Trio in C Minor, op.1/3 and again in the Beethoven encore—the melodious Adagio of the op.11 Trio. In contrast to the glamorous exterior of the three ladies, the playing had a refreshing, surprising plainness and tonal simplicity, with nothing hoity-toity going on: The musical version of (albeit chic) sensible shoes, not glam-heels or ballet slippers.

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Brahms, Liszt, Schoenberg, Piano Trios and Transcriptions,
Boulanger Piano Trio
PROFIL Hässler

In the youthful one-movement Shostakovich Trio op.8/1, the contrast between lyrical (piano) and mechanical (strings)—especially the rough side of the violin—came out very nicely, as did the first hints of melodiousness.

Wit isn’t something that Brahms can be accused of in his music. Anecdotes suggest a quick and caustic tongue, but the music—even of the pretty pretty youngster—is as serious as the dour look on our common image of him, with that enormous beard that allowed Brahms to better hide from women and other unwanted elements. It’s from the bearded 50+ year old Brahms that the Piano Trio No.3, op.101, comes. Although the Trio just recorded it, it was here that struggle turned from virtue to muddle and didn’t seem to play into the strengths so far displayed. Until the last movement, the stormy Allegro molto, that is… when the audience was rewarded with enlivening energy in cohesive shape. Cellist Ilona Kindt, acoustically submerged in a gray background for most of the evening, was at last forced further out into the open by brawling Brahms.

The first three movements of the Beethoven (with that wonderful variation-based slow movement) and that last movement of the Brahms Trio were the recital’s highlights. But they were topped again when it came to the namesake-honoring Lili Boulanger encore “D’un Matin de Printemps”, a superb miniature (in this case in a Piano Trio version) with all the hints of budding modernity and lingering Debussy in under five minutes.

* You wouldn’t, incidentally, know the names of the Trio’s members from their latest CD release—Brahms-Liszt-Schoenberg on PROFIL Hänssler; either oversight or emphasis on the music-making as a unit, not individuals.

P.S. Gauting even offers a piece of Americana: It is home to a top division German Baseball League team, the perplexingly named “Gauting Indians”.

Photo credit: Irène Zandel

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