Fort Worth — As expected, we are being bombarded by Beethoven in celebration of the pivotal composer’s 250th anniversary and there is a lot more to come. On Jan. 25, the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth offered an interesting contribution to the festivities in a concert entitled “Beethoven the Craftsman.” The concert at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth featured a trio of internationally recognized virtuosi: violinist Gary Levinson, cellist Robert deMaine, and pianist Andrew Armstrong. They opened with Beethoven’s Piano Trio in D Major, Op. 70, No. 1, "Ghost"; and closed with deMaine playing the composer’s Cello Sonata No. 5 in D major, Op. 102, No. 2. In between, they managed a reading of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36.
No, this is not a misprint. They actually played the entire symphony in an arrangement that reassigns the musical burden, originally given to full orchestra, to three brave souls. Who would dare to do such a thing, you may wonder? Beethoven himself.
In this era when almost all music is instantly available, and in a bewildering variety of performances historical and modern, it is hard to remember what a luxury technology has granted us. Public orchestral performances only started in Haydn and Mozart’s era. Before that, orchestras were owned by the nobility to present concerts to “entertain” the gaggle of aristocrats who lived “at court,” which is how Haydn started out at the lavish court of Prince Pál Antal Esterházy. So, at the time and until radio broadcasts started, getting the chance to hear Beethoven’s symphonic works were rare indeed.
So, these kinds of works were arranged for what was available to the public, from piano duets to larger ensembles. In the time before copyrights, anyone could make these arrangements so composers usually did them before someone lesser could beat them to it. I think that Beethoven himself would appreciate the irony of the reversal — modern Beethoven admirers seeking out opportunities to hear his piano trio version.
The performance was fascinating to hear, even though Beethoven’s arrangement kept the basic material in the violin and cello parts intact and gave what remained to a very busy pianist. Nevertheless, as soon as the listener’s ears became used to the minimalist landscape, the symphony was as impressive as ever. Of course, better players would be hard to find. Levinson is the Senior Principal Associate Concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony and deMaine is the Principal Cellist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Armstrong launched his international career as a pianist from his Jury Discretionary Award in the 1993 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
The opening performance of the work that Beethoven actually wrote for the piano trio ensemble also benefitted from such a stellar roster of musicians. However, for sheer magic, it was deMaine’s perceptive performance of the cello sonata that entranced the audience. Even though his Stradivarius cello delivers marvelous sound just on an open string, the sound deMaine produces from it is simply magnificent. Of course, his exceptional bow gets some of the credit, but he has a magic touch that elicits what has to be the best cello sound in memory.
Levinson’s Stradivarius produces a bolder sound than deMaine’s cello, but both instruments are notably exceptional to even the casual listener. Adding to that, both players had a similarity in technical approach. Both employed a wide range of dynamics and even rates and width of vibrato. While this may seem to be a minor matter, it most certainly is not. Vibrato and dynamic range become the seasonings of the sound and without that touch, playing can quickly become unsalted gruel. Such a lack is so common that we hardly notice it until we hear a performance where this musical salt and pepper is so skillfully employed.
Armstrong was a last-minute replacement, but you wouldn’t have thought that was the case from hearing his sensitive and virtuosic performance. He had great independence of his hands, which was especially noticeable in the symphony when he was tasked with bringing out all of the lines of dozens of symphony players.