Beaux Arts Trio
Sponsored by Winthrop House
At Sanders Theater
November 7 and February 25
The Beaux Arts Trio has come to enjoy great respect and popularity among Boston-area chamber-music fans, who regularly traverse the Charles River to hear the small classical music ensemble play at Harvard. Under the auspices of the Winthrop House Music society, the group has, for several years, filled the immense, lofty space of Sanders theater with clear and precise strains of time-honored music.
Last Wednesday night, the first performance in a series of three fall concerts, upheld that tradition. This performance featured a trio of accomplished musicians who provided the audience with a rare mix of engaging music and honest poise. Menahem Pressler performed on piano, Isidore Cohen on violin, and Peter Wiley on cello. While all three are of excellent caliber, Pressler led the others with his precise and intensely expressive gestures. He was the artistic engine which drove them to create such effective music.
The strong program consisted of Haydn's Trio in D minor (Hob. XV:23), Brahms' Trio in C minor (Opus 101), and Dvorak's Trio in E minor (Opus 90, "Dumky"). The Haydn and Brahms are both lyrical pieces, with standard formats of two moderately-fast outer movements which act as a frame for the inner character-piece movements. The Dumky trio is unusual and uniquely beautiful, however, as a set of six successive movements which share the same folk-themes. The choice of pieces on the program created an unusual--but ultimately successful--combination.
The Haydn was the weakest piece on the program. While it began animatedly, the music itself did not follow through. The main problem was one of balance; Pressler's large Steinway grand piano simply took undue precedence over the other instruments. The secondary problem was one of tempo; the pace of the first movement (the development in particular) was a bit slow and pedantic. This was inappropriate for the inherent liveliness and humor of Haydn. As a result, the cadential chords sounded forced and brash.
The second and third movements were more in keeping with the overall mood of the composition. The musicians began to adapt to the balance problem, and their tempos became more appropriate. At one point during the second movement, Pressler created an exquisite moment by varying the timbre of a repeated high note. The last movement was playful and fun, featuring a great swath of a chord at the main cadence of the exposition. It ended with a delightfully ironic twist.
The Brahms trio was performed with considerably more finesse. The broad, tragic opening of the first movement has a striking harmonic similarity to Beethoven's fifth symphony, and the trio expressed this character very clearly. The Beaux Arts musicians seemed more in their element playing dense Romantic music than in the delicate and witty Haydn which preceded it.
The thickness of the Brahms betrayed another flaw, however: the string players did not have the depth of sound which Pressler easily commanded. While they blended extremely well with each other, they sounded scratchy when playing with the piano. The violin seemed thin and whiny in the high register and could have benefitted from a looser vibrato. The final cadence of the first movement was uneven but effective.
The second movement of the piece was expertly done. Alternately frenetic, witty, and warm, it was the highlight of the evening. All three musicians formed a delicate equilibrium from which the many tiny phrases issued forth.
The third movement began with a well-crafted call-and-response between the strings and the piano. Cohen and Wiley did well to keep the gestures simple; their two-part counterpoint maintained greatness through its simplicity. Pressler's response was more richly done but still appropriate, and Cohen's relaxation during this movement significantly improved his tone and clarity. The final chord floated away beautifully.
The highlight of the fourth movement was the emergence of the cello in a high, dramatic melody. Wiley, who had not shown much character or charisma until then, displayed impressive musicianship and intensity.
The Brahms trio is very symphonic in style, and the Beaux Arts Trio treated it accordingly. While the performance itself was not without flaws, the musicians accurately captured the overall mood for which the piece called.
The musicians also delivered a verycomfortable, flowing rendition of Dvorak's Dumkytrio; they settled into the piece with securephrasing and intonation. The violin and celloparts had obviously been worked through--theplaying was natural and blended. Cohen showed abit of spark in the second movement with Dvorak'sfolksy fiddle tune. The great, heaving opening ofthe sixth movement was very successful, enhancedfurther by the spirited and well-executed surpriseending. The Beethoven trio (Opus 1, #1) served asa fun cap to the evening but did not enhance anyof the music which had preceded it.
The provincial renown the Beaux ArtsTrio enjoys unfortunately does not extend tothe Harvard student population. The hundreds oflisteners who fill Sanders Theater weekday nightstend to be adults. While the high price of tickets($18) and the inconvenient scheduling of theconcerts might be prohibitive, the performancesare inarguably strong and a refreshing respitefrom the pressures of hectic university life