Three Contrasted Piano Trio Works in the Extraordinary, Ultra-Rococo Cuvilliés-Theater

08/07/2017

Beethoven, Shostakovich, and Brahms: Munich Piano Trio (Michael Arlt (violin), Gerhard Zank (cello), Donald Sulzen (piano)). Cuvilliés-Theater, Munich, 7.7.2017. (MB)

Beethoven: Piano Trio in D major, op.70 no.1, ‘Ghost’

Shostakovich: Piano Trio in E minor, op.67

Brahms: Piano Trio in B major, op.8 (revised version, 1889)

Each year, the Munich Opera Festival offers a number of chamber concerts, as well as symphonic concerts and song recitals, in addition to its staple fare of at least one opera, sometimes more than that, per evening. Since I was in town, I thought I should go to hear the Munich Piano Trio, not least since it would be my first opportunity to attend a concert in the extraordinary, ultra-Rococo Cuvilliés-Theater. I once happened on a string quartet rehearsal there many years and resolved to return. One day, I hope, Idomeneo, which received its first performance there, will return when I am somewhere in the vicinity. (It did in 2008, so there is hope.) In the meantime, it was a pleasure to hear three contrasted piano trio works, performed with a welcome lack of affectation.

Beethoven’s Ghost Trio – like all the performances, I think – received a performance somewhat on the Apollonian side. This was not a Beethoven to storm the heavens, but perhaps not every performance need be. In the first movement, taken at a tempo that seemed spot on for Allegro vivace e con brio – perhaps faster than my inclination, but who cares? – scalic passages proved properly generative. Derivations therefrom and breaking up into small motifs was the business of the development: no need for Romantic metaphor, which might have seemed somewhat out of place. And yet, this was not ‘easy’ listening; one simply needed to listen to hear the difficulty, at times not so far from late Beethoven, in the music. The lyricism of the second group, especially during the recapitulation, was especially welcome. Not that the movement was over then; the coda offered surprises aplenty, again, so long as the listener kept to his or her side of the bargain – and listened. Concision was, rightly, striking. There was an air of mystery, its roots in Mozart, to the slow movement, which unfolded simply, inevitably. Again, the twin features of simplicity of basic material and developmental inspiration shone through. There was radiance, to be sure, but it was hard won and never permanent. The finale proved playful in its disjunctures, disjoint even in its play: often, at least. String intonation was occasionally somewhat awry, but not so as to trouble unduly. In a sense, such fallibility reminded one that this was a performance, with all that entails.

In a very different way, simplicity and extremity characterised the Shostakovich E minor Trio. The poor cellist at the opening! There was, again, a different sort of inevitability to the first movement, but it was undeniably present in the main, Moderato section. Its simple harmonies might have been made to feel connected to Beethoven’s tonic-dominant oscillations, but did not; context was all. The enigmatic quality to the transformations of the second movement was well handled; there were no answers, but questions were certainly asked. If the Largo is possessed of a bleakness that for me comes perilously close to mere emptiness, the players had the measure of its contours in a well shaped reading, preparing the way for an equally accomplished performance of the insistently straightforward finale. If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you would have liked.

Brahms is much more my sort of thing. The second half therefore brought the pleasure of a return to home territory, albeit with a twist: the revised version of the B major Trio. Recently, the original seems to have been more popular. There are arguments for both, but I think I should opt for this, if I had to choose. The Trio has played both and thus made the decision in full knowledge and understanding. It was a splendid work for cellist, Gerhard Zank to have to start saying his farewells to the Bavarian State Orchestra, with which he has played for thirty-nine years. An interesting programme interview offered reminiscences of work with conductors such as Wolfgang Sawallisch, Carlos Kleiber, and yes, Kirill Petrenko. Motivic integrity and development came to the fore from the outset. The players drew upon a varied palette that yet never quite partook of expressive extremities. Such matters are largely a matter of taste; this was, again, relatively Apollonian Brahms. Occasionally, I found Donald Sulzen’s piano a little recessed in tone, but perhaps that was the acoustic. There was certainly no doubting his collegiality; he was not a pianist, as many are, to overwhelm his string colleagues. Rhythms were nicely sprung in the scherzo, Brahms’s Beethovenian inheritance clear. The trio spoke more of Schubert. Such, after all, one might say, is Brahms’s tendency more generally. The stark simplicity of Michael Arlt’s violin and Zank’s cello at the opening of the slow movement seemed to recall late Beethoven, although the lyricism that ensued proved quite different, and rightly so, in quality. The movement never lost its apparent roots in (imagined) song, whilst never pretending simply to ‘be’ its roots. I have heard bigger boned performances of the finale, in particular, but the refusal to exaggerate, to play to the gallery, however dazzling in this theatre, offered its own rewards. So too did the Piazzolla encore.

Mark Berry

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