No Museum Pieces or Elitism in Erato’s Museum Recital

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Suk, Brahms: The Erato Piano Trio [Irina Botan (piano), Yuri Kaltnis (violin), Julia Morneweg (cello)], Reardon Smith Theatre, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, 10.2.2013.(GPu)

Mozart: Piano Trio in C, K. 458
Suk: Elegie, Op. 23
Brahms: Piano Trio No.2 in C, Op.87

The opening page of Chapter One of Alex Ross’s 2010 collection of essays, Listen To This reads as follows (with some omissions for the sake of brevity):

‘I hate “classical music”: not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past … The phrase is a masterpiece of negative publicity, a tour de force of anti-hype. I wish there were another name … For at least a century, the music has been captive to a cult of mediocre elitism that tries to manufacture self-esteem by clutching at empty formulas of intellectual superiority. Consider other names in circulation: “art” music, “serious” music, “great” music, “good” music. … Composers are artists, not etiquette columnists … They have been betrayed by well-meaning acolytes who believe that the music should be marketed as a luxury good, one that replaces an inferior popular product. These guardians say, in effect, “The music you love is trash. Listen instead to our great, arty music.” ’

If “classical music” makes an elitist claim which seems to promote exclusion, what are we to make of “chamber music” a phrase which seems to want to establish a yet more privileged locus within that elite territory. The phrase is often taken to indicate music of particular purity and refinement. The word “chamber” seems to identify this as music of a particularly private nature, belonging in a venue to which only a select few will normally be admitted. Even some of its warmest advocates talk of it in terms which implicitly make excessively – even cosily – elitist claims for it. Homer Ulrich’s valuable book of 1948 has a revealing subtitle: Chamber Music, the Growth and Practice of an Intimate Art and tells the reader that it is about “one of the most enjoyable and dignified” forms of musical literature. “The musical amateur often makes it his hobby and considers it the mainspring of his musical existence. The professional musician turns to it for relaxation and for a kind of pleasure that no other field offers”. Though there are truths here, the tone inescapably ‘miniaturises’ the field, so that it becomes primarily a “hobby” or a “relaxation”. This, writes Ulrich, is “a medium for the expression of particularly intimate ideas”. Think of Beethoven’s late quartets or the Bartok quartets, to take only a couple of examples. Is this really the appropriate set of assumptions with which to approach such music? Is this “relaxing” music? Apart from the instrumentation in which there articulated, what is particularly “intimate” about the ‘ideas’ in these works? There are profundities here as great as any elsewhere in the two composers’ works, the intellectual and emotional complexities being every bit as real and rewarding.

The concerts of chamber music organised in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, by CwpanAur are, in the organisation’s own words, part of a plan “to promote concerts of classical music which are informal, accessible and affordable without in any way compromising musical standards. A further aim is to build an audience for chamber music in the future by offering free tickets to young people in full time education.” The laudable aspirations to informality, accessibility and relative cheapness (all very largely fulfilled) are, in effect, implicit recognitions of the problems outlined above. Of course, others have to be sufficiently free of the attitudes Ross specifies before they turn up and discover that these concerts are not stuffily, self-congratulatorily elitist affairs. On this particular occasion my wife and I took along to the concert our seven year old granddaughter, just a few weeks into learning the violin, and of an age to be largely uninfluenced by the “negative publicity” of which Ross writes. For her, “music is music”, as Alban Berg famously told George Gershwin. She particularly liked, she said, the “first two songs” – that is, the opening allegro and the andante cantabile of Mozart’s K.548 and thought that the last ‘song’ (the final movement – allegro giocoso – of Brahms’ Opus 87) was a good way to end because “it sent you out happy”. So much for this music being the preserve of an informed elite!

Nor, of course, is this music merely of relaxation, music of intrinsically lesser significance than, say, orchestral music. Most genuine music lovers know that, of course, but the terminology we use can conceal the fact. The opening allegro is every bit as vivacious as anything in Mozart’s symphonies; the lyricism of the andante is as expressive as anything Mozart wrote in ‘larger’ forms. Nor, of course, is this late trio by Brahms in any sense an inferior ‘domestic’ cousin of his ‘public’ symphonies and concertos. The grandeur of its first movement is a match for anything in Brahms’ orchestral works, while the second and fourth movements are decidedly imposing and are (in every sense except the number of instruments) ‘large’ movements. The young musicians of the Erato Trio gave satisfying performances of both works, although in the Mozart, violinist Yuri Kaltnis played with a stiffness and rigidity of rhythm which sat a little uneasily alongside the expressive fluidity of pianist Irina Botan and cellist Julia Morneweg. In the andante of the Brahms the balance of emotional weight (capturing the movement’s heroic dimensions) and structural clarity (in the articulation of its series of variations) was well calculated and sustained. Throughout the Brahms Trio the playing of Julia Morneweg was characterised by its striking communication of emotion, not least in the poignancy of her work in the final movement and her contribution to the haunting mystery of the scherzo.

Suk’s Elégie is an engaging oddity. It was written (scored for the improbable forces of violin, cello, harmonium, string quartet and harp), in 1902, in honour of the poet Julius Zeyer (1841-1901), whose works included a cyclical epic on Czech mythological motifs, Vysehrad, which is, of course, also the name of the great fortress of Prague. Suk’s Elégie carries the subtitle ‘Under the impression of Zeyer’s Vysehrad’. There is as much a sense of peacefulness as of grief in this Elégie, of which Suk wrote a version for Piano Trio in 1902. The violin carries much of the thematic material (Suk himself was, of course, a distinguished violinist) and here Yuri Kaltnis played in an altogether more relaxed and outgoing manner than he had in the Mozart trio which preceded it. The piano’s role in Elégie is largely confined to accompaniment of the strings. Here, as elsewhere in the programme, Irina Botan’s work was exemplary.

One is tempted to say that this trio version of Suk’s Elégie ought to be heard more often (and so it should) but the remark might seem perverse given that the Erato Trio chose to reprise the whole short work as their encore. If anything, there was even more passion, even more relishing of its lushness and melodies in their second reading of the work..

Though this concert, like all the series to which it belongs, was given under the roof of the National Museum of Wales, there was no sense that the audience were being presented with ‘museum pieces’. Rather, to requote Alex Ross, this was “tenaciously living art”. This young trio take their name from the muse of lyric poetry, a muse whose name perhaps derives from the Greek adjective erastos, meaning “loved, beloved; lovely, charming”. Most of those epithets, and more, came to mind during this concert.

Glyn Pursglove