Beethoven’s piano trios in Berlin’s Pierre Boulez Saal is a portent of a special annniversary year

GermanyGermany Beethoven: Michael Barenboim (violin), Kian Soltani (cello), Daniel Barenboim (piano). Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin, 1.12.2019. (MB)

Beethoven – Piano Trio in E-flat major, Op.1 No.1; Piano Trio in C minor, Op.1 No.3; Piano Trio in G major, Op.1 No.2; Piano Trio in D major, Op.70 No.1, ‘Ghost’

Berlin’s Pierre Boulez Saal has already seen — and heard — a few portents of next year’s Beethoven anniversary. In September, the first concert of the 2019-20 season opened with Beethoven’s Horn Sonata, Op.17. With Advent Sunday, the festivities began in earnest: the first of two concerts in which the six piano trios (plus the ‘Kakadu’ Variations) are performed by Michael Barenboim, Kian Soltani, and Daniel Barenboim. If subsequent events turn out to compare well with this, we shall be in for a special year indeed. Where better to start, to bring light to the long nights of a Berlin winter, than with Beethoven’s official Opus 1? Before that, however, Daniel Barenboim requested — and naturally received — a minute’s silence for Mariss Jansons, whose death had been announced but a few hours earlier: ‘ein ganz grosser Musiker und ein wunderbarer Mensch’. Quite — and very much in keeping with the humanism to be celebrated throughout the coming year.

The E-flat Trio, first of the three Beethoven composed for Prince Karl Lichnowsky, opened in bright, alert, reflectively post-Mozartian fashion: very much an opening not just to the first movement, not just to the work, not just to the set and concert, but to the œuvre and year ahead. It was clear from the very outset that this was to be chamber-music playing of the greatest distinction; much could be garnered even just from watching the players listen, their give-and-take. Likewise from the difference heard in the first-movement exposition ‘repeat’: nothing of the sort, of course, yet nor was it different for the sake of it. Much the same might be said for the return to the tonic in the recapitulation and its necessary novelty to remain and conclude in that key: touchingly so, indeed. Harmony, as in all Beethoven performances worthy of the name, underlay events ‘above’; there was no need to draw attention to the fact, for it simply — or not so simply — ‘was’. The greatest Western music from the years leading up to 1800 — think, for instance, of Haydn’s London Symphonies and The Creation — conveys a sense of a Newtonian musical universe there to be mapped, explored, wondered at; so did this performance.

Beethoven’s early slow movements are no easy thing to bring off. It should doubtless come as little surprise that a performance led, if only as first among equals, by Daniel Barenboim should succeed in that, fulfilling the ‘Adagio cantabile’s stylistic and formal demands to perfection, but it is still worth acclaiming. Time and space, simplicity and ornament: all sounded and felt as they ‘should’. And how those modulations were handled! Different characters of each instrument, each instrumentalist registered — Michael Barenboim’s wordless song and Kian Soltani’s suave profundity as much as Barenboim père’s incontrovertible identification with the music ‘itself’ — yet equally came together as voices of a single humanity. A buoyant scherzo brought fine balance between detail and formal dynamism, permitting motivic development freely to speak, to lead. Its trio followed, voiced with intimacy on a coiled (harmonic) spring, the trio’s reprise rightly coming — however much one ‘knew’ — as a surprise. Daniel Barenboim clearly knew and communicated what was at stake in the finale’s opening slurred leaps of a tenth; the fuse was gently, confidently lit. Full of delightful and, later, truly moving surprises, later imitated and developed by Michael Barenboim, the twists and turns of this movement managed to recall, intensify, and sublimate so much of what we had heard previously, while remaining true to the particular form and function of this, the closing movement. Wonderful!

The third of the Lichnowsky trios followed, its C minor home tonality already revealed to be moving away from Mozart — yet with undoubted reference, for instance to the Piano Sonata, KV 457, and with Mozartian melodic writing as a counterweight — toward something else, something more Beethovenian, for want of a better word. How much greater emotional weight there was to be heard on the reprise of the introduction, not least in Michael Barenboim’s rich-toned violin phrase; likewise the reprise, insofar as we may call it that, of the exposition as a whole. For it sounded rather as if already a first development, preparing the way for second and, in the recapitulation, third developments to come. The latter sounded fuller of surprises than ever — ‘simply’ by playing the notes and everything between and surrounding them. Tragic vehemence in the coda, Neapolitan harmony and all, proved similarly Janus-faced. Truths were spoken, or rather sung, with perfect balance between the aristocratic and popular in the second movement variations. Such a balance, one felt, was still just about possible; Haydn was after all still very much alive, even if Mozart were not, at least in a merely corporeal sense. The third variation’s concerto-like piano, set against pizzicato, beautifully judged violin and cello, had one on the edge of one’s seat — in a good way. Soltani’s tragic, seria voice in its successor proved ineffably effecting. Everything, one felt, was there, was here. The complex neoclassicism — yes, already — of the minuet was apparent: meaningful, yet never laboured. Space — just enough, nothing excessive — was afforded for its trio to relax and to develop. Then the C minor tragic daemon could truly be unleashed for Beethoven’s finale, quite without detriment to lovable glances sideways and indeed backwards to a vanishing eighteenth century. The ‘Pathétique’ Sonata was just around the corner, yet rightly not quite with us either. That this was Beethoven, however, no one could have any doubt.

Following the interval, we heard Op.1 No.2, the closest of the three to Haydn — and so it sounded, not least in the first movement introduction, whose transition to the exposition proper was revealingly likened by Denis Matthews to that of the ‘Oxford’ Symphony. We were invited to listen, both to the work’s particularity and to its kinship, harmonic and motivic development coming together to delineate a path both familiar and unique. In the slow movement, a wordless vocal ensemble vouchsafed us truths that words could never tell. Hopeless Romanticism? Perhaps, yet if so, so what? Daniel Barenboim’s piano told of something so ineffably sublime that already the way seemed pointed towards the composer’s late works. The scherzo’s keen sense of Affekt and of line prepared the way for a trio that justly rejuvenated rather than relaxed. In Beethoven, no one size fits all. Haydn to the nth degree characterised the finale’s moto perpetuo, the simplest musical—tonal-musical—building blocks, scales, diatonic triads, and so on, imbued with the freshness of discovery.

For the final work on the programme, we moved to middle-period Beethoven, to the so-called ‘Ghost’ Trio, Op.70 No.1. Striking in context was the similarity of means in its first movement to the finale of the preceding work. Full maturity of voice, however, proved just as striking in contrast, rendering performance as much as reception a very different experience. It was not just that one heard greater ‘Romanticism’, though one did, but the combination of broader canvas and — shockingly — greater concision, of contrapuntal and motivic intensity and, at times, density of texture: on the page, yes, but flying off it too. As Beethoven took his leave from Haydn and Mozart, he drew still closer to them. The slow movement voiced, perhaps for the first time, a tragic sadness with roots in Mozart, yet which cast its shadow long into the nineteenth century and even at times beyond. Soltani and the Barenboims shaped its course so unerringly that one never noticed the shaping, the skill and understanding behind, the material necessity. And what extraordinary material this is: that one felt as if for the first time, its strangeness confirmed and renewed. The finale brought an aptly direct and elliptical response, its goal before us, yet nevertheless held in suspense. If sometimes the music sounded close to Brahms in texture and harmony, that is only because it is indeed. Yet there was none of Brahms’s ‘lateness’, all the immediacy of middle-period Beethoven: as vigorous as it was euphonious, as impetuous as it was sublime.

Mark Berry

1 thought on “Beethoven’s piano trios in Berlin’s Pierre Boulez Saal is a portent of a special annniversary year”

  1. I wish these performances could be uploaded to YouTube or be available as CDs or DVDs to be bought by those interested in Beethoven – The Piano Trios.

    Beethoven – The Piano Trios are not performed often in public like his Violin Sonatas and Piano Sonatas are performed. These performances by Daniel Barenboim and Company should be cherished forever by classical music lovers as a ‘Precious Keep Sake’.

    Beethoven – The Piano Trios really tells us a lot about the musical genius that Beethoven really was. Thanks to Mark Berry for reviewing these performances.


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