Beethoven, Borowski and Barenboims: Invention both in Work and in Performance


Beethoven and Borowski: Michael Barenboim (violin), Kian Soltani (cello), Daniel Barenboim (piano). Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin, 19.11.2017 (MB)

Beethoven: Piano Trio in E-flat major, op.1 no.1; Piano Trio in D major, op.70 no.1

Johannes Boris Borowski: Piano Trio (2013)

Recently seventy-five years young, Daniel Barenboim is returning his attention to Beethoven’s chamber music – as well as turning and returning his attention to much else. The music of Johannes Boris Borowski is one of those newer focuses of attention. Borowski’s Encore was first performed earlier this year at the Pierre Boulez Saal by Barenboim and the hall’s resident Boulez Ensemble. Now, with two fine young musicians, violinist Michael Barenboim and cellist Kian Soltani, the elder Barenboim presented two of Beethoven’s piano trios – the rest are to come – alongside Borowski’s 2013 work, written originally for the Trio Steuermann.

This was, I think, my first encounter with Borowski’s music. It certainly made me keen to hear more, and indeed to hear the Piano Trio again. Typical caveats for a new work (to me) apply: I have not seen a score, and am basing my account entirely upon a single hearing (and performance). Written in a single movement, lasting about a quarter of an hour, Borowski’s Trio emerged as somewhat in the Schubert-Liszt-Schoenberg tradition of encompassing at least a sense, if less overtly than those composers, of traditional movements within. It certainly sounded as a work in itself, not one movement in need of anything else. My ear – the Boulez Saal’s ‘thinking ear’, I hope – was especially caught later on by a haunting passage, seemingly ‘led’ by the cello, often with harmonics, which paved the way for what sounded akin to a ‘slow movement’ section, save for its placing at the close. ‘Placing’ is not quite the right word, given the possible implication of contrivance, for it proved very much a fitting conclusion and, in its way, a ‘return’, with all the musical connotations that might bring.

For there was there to be heard a return, albeit transformed, to the material of the very opening, whose intervals had announced themselves – I think – of fundamental importance to the progression of the work as a whole: not unlike Webern, perhaps, for they proved generative in a thematic, even melodic sense, even on this first hearing. The sound-world was not Webern’s; why would it be? It was darker, perhaps, at any rate recognisably, if you will forgive the aesthetic affront, post-high-modernist (by which I certainly do not mean postmodernist). All three instrumentalists listened and responded to each other as their parts suggested or demanded; this was played above all as ‘chamber music’, rather than ‘new music’. Echoes, transformations, and repetitions of figures between instruments could thus be experienced much – well, at least in part – as one might have done with Beethoven or Haydn. The considerable technical demands for violin and cello in particular were fearlessly and, above all, musically navigated. As I said, I look forward to hearing the piece again – and more by Borowski.

Prior to that, we had heard the first of Beethoven’s works in the genre, indeed his op.1 no.1: the Trio in E-flat major. The very first bar spoke of a young composer, his music full of what can only, if bathetically, be described as ‘life’. Barely ‘Romantic’ at all – surely rather less so than late Mozart or late Haydn – this was nevertheless unmistakeably Beethoven, ‘influences’ notwithstanding. The performance, both of the first movement and beyond, was ‘stylish, yes, but as an integral part of work and performance: not, as so many ‘authenticke’ brethren would seem to think, as something to be applied to the notes. Balance, which so many of them would claim, quite without evidence, to be ‘impossible’ on modern instruments, never proved an issue at all. The expansive, even on occasion slightly stiff, qualities of Beethoven’s early structures were minimised, form properly dynamic, developmental modulations in particular relished.

The three instruments (and their players) were especially winningly differentiated in the slow movement, taken at a tempo that seemed just right to accommodate, or better navigate, its competing demands. Daniel Barenboim proved fully equal to the apparently opposed demands of simplicity and complexity, so typical of an early Beethoven slow movement. Michael Barenboim was not afraid to sound a little rougher, where the music suggested such an approach. The surpassing elegance of Soltani’s cello tone was yet never an end in itself. A sprightly, good humoured, even skittish scherzo followed, the trio more relaxed, and considerably more intimate. One was compelled to listen: all the better. The invention implied and unleashed by that almost bizarre opening phrase of the finale – bizarre, until one appreciates, if only retrospectively, what it is suggesting – quite rightly never found itself normalised. If there were a few oddities of balance in this movement, there was nothing too grievous, far more simply, or not so simply, to enjoy.

The so-called ‘Ghost’ Trio, op.70 no.1 – to my mind, a singularly unhelpful nickname – was heard in the second half. This was unquestionably, and with just cause, a very different Beethoven: master of all he surveyed, master of more than we mere mortals could ever survey, and yet more profoundly human than all of us too. There were points of reference to the early work we had heard, but the musical sublimity – an idea essentially defined by Beethoven’s music – was something quite different. Not that this was an unduly reverential performance, nor indeed a reverential performance at all. The composer’s intense developmental concision characterised what therefore proved – again, nothing applied to the music – a thrilling first movement.

There was no doubting the Romanticism, however defined or understood, of the slow movement. It rarity, in every sense, sang as unmistakeably as anything in the composer’s late œuvre. Rapt, sublime – yes, I know I am repeating myself – this offered the (dialectical?) contradiction of a ‘perfect dialectic’, between the simple and the complex. Whatever one fancied to have become impossible after Mozart’s death, for a few minutes sounded not only once again possible but close to realisation. Arioso or scena? Ultimately, rightly, this movement was simply itself. First and foremost, the performance of the finale possessed the character of a finale. It offered release after the slow movement, yet tension aplenty of its own too. Nevertheless, something of the spirit of the father, indeed the inventor, of the piano trio remained: Haydn lived. What invention here, then, both in work and in performance!

Mark Berry

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