An Enthralling Beethoven Recital from Pires, Dumay and Meneses

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven: Maria Joăo Pires (piano), Augustin Dumay (violin), Antonio Meneses (cello), Wigmore Hall, London, 27.10.2014. (GD)

Piano Trio Movement in B flat WoO38
Cello Sonata in A major Op. 69
Violin Sonata in F major Op. 24 ‘Spring’
Piano Trio in D major Op.70 No.1 ‘Ghost’


What does WoO mean, given to some of Beethoven’s works instead of an Opus number? It literally means works without an opus number, or works which, for various reasons, were not published with an opus number. It could mean works published with the opus number suspended.  or works which only survived in fragments. Beethoven was notoriously disorganised in such matters, and many such fragments exist. But the important thing to remember is that these are genuine Beethoven compositions, not works whose authenticity is in dispute. The opening and charming ‘Allegretto’ for Piano Trio was probably written for the notoriously mysterious ‘Imortal Beloved’. Beethoven wrote it just after he had finished the great ‘Archduke’ Trio, in the same key B flat major. It is beautifully composed with a wonderful flowing economy and melody which gives equal prominence to all three players. In fact it was just the right choice as an opening work, introducing all three of tonight’s players who make  a superbly cogent and conversational piano trio. The programme note writer tells us that one of the main themes this evening was to show ‘Beethoven’s melodic style at its most relaxed’ This applied mostly to the first half of the recital, but it could equally apply to the concluding ‘Ghost’ Trio. Melody is not the first quality we attach to Beethoven; Theodor Adorno saw Beethoven as the composer of rupture and dynamic/tonal contrast – a dialectician every bit as worthy as his great contemporary Hegel! But if we cut through such philosophic discourse we actually discover that throughout his whole oeuvre there are all kinds of quite innovative melodic invention. One only has to think of the ‘Adagio’ from the Ninth Symphony, or the Razumovsky String Quartet No.1. But also in his most radical and rhythmically charged and trenchantly cutting scores such as the ‘Grosse fuga’.

The main difference between Beethoven’s melodies and  melodists like Schubert and later Tchaikovsky is that they will more or less forground a melody as a prime component, whereas Beethoven will use a melodic device as a means to contrast and develop a theme. A good example of this came across in the next work on the programme, the Cello Sonata in A major. In the first movement; the cello opens with the first melodic theme, but the theme’s third and fourth bars provide the basis for a sonorous development section, where the theme is variously modulated, re-harmonised before it soars high above a widely spaced piano accompaniment written in imitation of a cello playing across its strings. All this was beautifully and compellingly articulated by Antonio Meneses and Maria Joăo Pires, who has an international career as a concert pianist and proved to be a superb chamber music musician, working, conversing with other soloists. Indeed, throughout the recital there was a wonderful sense of rapport/dialogue between all three musicians.  The rest of the A major Cello Sonata,  the second movement expanded scherzo, with its similarities with the Fourth Symphony. The finale, with its solemn ‘Adagio’ , which sounds like the beginning of a great slow movement, only to interrupted by an exhilarating finale ‘Allegro vivace’ – all were superbly contrasted, with an attention to detail which never obscured the projection of the work as a whole. Performances of this quality certainly remind us that this Beetoven sonata needs to be heard and played more.

 The opening of the so called ‘Spring’ Sonata is one of Beethoven’s most melodic and lyrical statements, Dumay played it with a song-like opulence. Occasionally I thought his vibrato too bright and distracting, but as the movement progressed his articulation of abrubt rhythmic/tonal registers and changes was exemplary. Also I noticed that Joăo Pires’ articulation of the second subject’s tricky triplets was not quite a clear as they can sound. But again this is no more than a quibble, given the splendour of her playing in the context of the whole work. The development section, with its tonal/dynamic twists and turns, and also the wonderful contrasting themes, from the opening melody initiating the movements coda, were all superbly articulated. The flowing B flat motifs of the second movement were suffused with just the right degree of lyricism. I had the impression that both violinist and pianist relished the scherzo with its ‘game of tag’ in which violin and piano bounce off of each other. Beethoven’s sense of invention and humour continued in the finale, in rondo form with its off-beat cross rhythms and dotted figurations encompassing a range of quick tonal and abrupt rhythmic  changes and inversions, all delivered with a degree of spontaneity and humorous dialogue I have only rarely experienced.

 Once a ‘nickname’ is conferred on a composition it usually becomes fixed. No one is absolutely sure who, or how the Trio in D major Op. 70 No.1 acquired the nickname ‘Ghost’. It was once thought that Beethoven himself assigned the ‘Ghost’ tag. At the time he was working on both Op 70 No’s 1 and 2 (1808-09) Beethoven was contemplating an opera on ‘Macbeth’ The ‘Largo assai ed expressivo’ borrows its main thematic material from a sketch originally made to accompany a scene from the witches in Heinrich von Collin’s libretto for the Macbeth project. It seems that the young composer was particularly fond of Macbeth, with its ‘witch’ scenes and the famous Ghost scenes. But after 1809 we hear little mention of Macbeth, Shakespeare, or the contemplated opera. We are not absolutely sure how serious the composer was regarding the discarded opera. But we can be sure now that Beethoven did not assign Ghost, or any other nickname, to the trio. Yet despite all this uncertainty Op 70 No.1 continued to be associated with the supernatural, the occult, the ‘unheimlich’well into the 20th century, where Jean Luc Godard used it in a film about sexual obsession and perversity! E T A Hoffmann, who wrote a lot about music, claimed that the work ‘opened up a world unknown to man’, sounding very Freudian before Freud was born! After the opening movement sets  an energetic motif in parallel octaves a broad and flowing melody develops into both major and minor registers, with remote key clusters just berfore the abrubt coda. According to one commentator the famous and ‘mysterious’ ‘ghost’ movement, the Largo assai, is  ‘one long nocturnal murmer in D minor’. The eerie piano figurations invest the momentum here with an ‘unsettling, transfixing pulse’. This music, George Bernard Shaw once said, ‘still has the power to unsettle us.  The lyrical ‘presto’ finale returns to the brightness of the major mode, as if to recall the sunny ‘reality’ evoked in the ‘Spring sonata’. Every detail of this superbly innovative work was given the most impeccable attention tonight, whilst never detracting from the wider structures of each movement and the work as a whole. The ‘Ghost’ movement sounded particularly sustained and haunted, with its strange vibrations and haunting piano figurations (superbly integrated by Joăo Pires). The hushed – eerie – tones seemed to powerfully resonate around the whole hall.

 We were given a generous encore in the minor key tones of the ‘Andante con moto’ from the Piano Trio in C major Op. 87 by Brahms. All three players gave a predictably sustained and powerfully nuanced rendition of this potent and stoical music.

Geoff Diggines

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