Fort Worth — When Beethoven’s “Archduke” Piano Trio in B-flat major, Op. 97, is on the program, usually that puts it on the must-see list for music lovers. Such was the case on Feb. 8 when the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth announced a program called Regal Passions. Although the name of the concert didn’t quite fit what happened in general, we certainly got plenty of passionate playing in Beethoven’s perfect piano trio. (And I suppose that an Archduke is the refered to royalty.)
The auditorium at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth was not as packed as it usually is for these concerts because the traffic for the nearby Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo clogged the roads and parking lots for miles around. The police kept the small lot around the museum open for those just going to the museum, but it filled up quickly with concertgoers as well as other patrons. But the concert was certainly worth effort.
The list of players on the concert was indeed impressive. Artistic Director and violinist Gary Levinson invited three artists with international reputations. Violist Toby Appel, who is well-known as a chamber musician and soloist, and on the faculty of the Juilliard School, is familiar to many as a commentator on the National Public Radio’s program Performance Today. Cellist Bion Tsang took the Bronze Medal in the IX International Tchaikovsky Competition, netted a Grammy nomination in 2011, and is on the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin. Pianist Orion Weiss has been in constant demand ever since he stepped in, on very short notice, to cover for pianist André Watts in a performance of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Players aside, the program itself was a big draw. They opened with Joaquín Turina’s Piano Quartet in A Minor, Op. 67, followed by Antonín Dvořák’s ever-popular Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat Major, Op. 87. They saved Beethoven’s “Archduke” for last.
Turina’s music is an example of the beginnings of an international style of composition at the turn of the 20th century. He was born in Seville, Spain, but his background was equal parts Italian. Another major influence was his study under Vincent d’Indy from 1905 to 1914 in Paris. Yet, in spite of this international stylistic stew, his music is direct and unmistakably Spanish, but is flavored with a French impressionistic sauce.
The opening of the Turina, which is written in unison at the octave, amply displayed the skill of the string players right at the beginning. Intonation in such a passage is difficult to achieve, but not here, with this quality of players. This opening spoke well for the performance ahead, because Turina repeats this phrase, and others similarly voiced, throughout the entire work. In fact, he frequently uses the strings as a unified ensemble that he sets against the piano.
In the second movement, the ensemble brought out the composer’s Spanish influence. They were even more impressive in the third movement as the musical styles continued to change. There were some Roma influences, a touch of salon music and even some jazz. They also did an excellent job with the composers’ opposition of piano and strings as they exchanged fortissimo chords back and forth.
Dvořák’s popular Piano Quartet No. 2 followed. Interestingly, it also begins unison strings like the Turina and the ensemble did an equally fine job with precise intonation. Since this theme runs through the entire movement, their forceful initial statement gave the performance an exciting launch. The clean and crisp way that they played the dotted rhythm that is characteristic of much of the piece deserves special mention. It was had pace between the notes, was precisely accurate, and played with exceptional ensemble. The beautiful and slightly melancholy second movement received a sensitive performance that was the highlight of the concert.
The third movement offered a welcome contrast. It is a gentle waltz and the ensemble gave the three-beat tempo a gentle sweep. The contrasting middle section was performed without sticking out like it was a last-minute addition. But they really let loose in the last movement and reveled in the composer’s Bohemian influence, bringing the performance to a jolly close.
Mention must be made of Appel, a violist of exceptional abilities. His deep and resonant tone was arresting every time he was assigned a solo passage. But his sound had enough flexibility that he was able to occupy the neutral ground between the sonorities of the violin and the cello. Depending on scope and function of each passage, he was able to merge with either instrument when needed. He was also able to occupy the sonic territory between them to create the sound of a unified string ensemble. Quite remarkable.
Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio (Erzherzog-trio) is one of his most beautiful compositions. Right from the opening phrase he captures the audience’s attention and doesn’t let them go until the last note rings in the air. It is so named because it was dedicated to Archduke Rudolph of Austria, the youngest offspring of the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold II. The Archduke was Beethoven’s patron, which earned him many such dedications, but he was also Beethoven’s student of both piano and composition.
The trio was written at the time when the composer’s quickly approaching deafness made it increasingly difficult for him to perform as a pianist, which had been his livelihood up to that point. Beethoven played the 1814 premiere of this trio as well as one subsequent performance, but these two appearances were his last as a concert pianist. Contemporary accounts of his efforts were not very complimentary, even aside from the fact that the piano was seriously out of tune. But he was too deaf to notice that the trio itself was widely praised then and continues to be considered one of Beethoven’s greatest masterpieces.
Yet this is not one of his musically complex works that features compositional virtuosity, such as large-scale fugues and development sections in he dissects his materials down to atoms and rebuilds them in highly original ways. No, this trio is marked by broad sweeping melodies, emotional involvement, great beauty and a large dose of his famous humor.
The reason for all of this background is a reminder that Beethoven knew that the trio’s premiere would be his last chance to perform in public as a pianist, so he endowed the piano part with music of heroic and epic proportions. As a result, it requires a pianist of exceptional sensitivity combined with flawless technical abilities, great independence of the hands, and a serious commitment to collaboration. Without that rare combination of abilities, the “Archduke” trio cannot get the performance it deserves. Fortunately, pianist Orion Weiss fit these rigorous requirements and delivered a stellar performance. Of special note was the independence of his hands because Beethoven often treats them as two independent voices, creating a pseudo quartet out of three players.
The “Archduke” requires a pair of equally matched virtuosi — a violinist and a cellist with equal abilities. Levinson is well known to both local and international audiences as a violinist of exceptional versatility. In some mysterious way, he is able to meld with his Stradivarius to match its character to the required musical style of whatever he is playing. Thus, it took on a passionate nobility in the first movement of the trio but relaxed in the following movements to express flashes of humor.
The same can be said of cellist Bion Tsang, who occupies the same stellar status as the other two musicians. Besides having a glorious sound and displaying clean technical brilliance, he was the most consistently involved of the three in the constantly changing moods of Beethoven’s trio. We could see his thoughts on every note and phrase in his demeanor. Everything he played was obviously carefully thought out, but still sounded spontaneous.
My only complaint is a frequent one: Humor in classical music is too often toned down or even forgotten. Beethoven, especially, was a practitioner of inserting musical jokes even in his most serious compositions. He got this fair and square from Haydn, who even called one of his string quartets “The Joke” and a symphony with sudden loud chords “The Surprise.”
This conservative approach was the fate of the last movement of Beethoven’s trio. It is laden to the hilt with hilarious humor, musical mischief and wonderous whimsy. Maybe we got a subtle smile here and there, but this movement longs for laughter, twinkling eyes, and knowing winks between the players and even aimed to the audience.
But that reservation aside, this was an exceptional concert, maybe one of the best that CMSFW has managed in a while — and given the group’s excellence, that’s saying something.