Wednesday, December 6, 2017

First Friday for Rachmaninoff and Beethoven


REVIEW

First Fridays at First!, First Lutheran Church, Torrance
DAVID J BROWN

Trio Céleste.
As pianist Kevin Kwan Loucks (one-third of Trio Céleste, along with violinist Iryna Krechkovsky and ‘cellist Ross Gasworth) noted in his brief spoken introduction, two youthful works comprised the December “First Fridays” lunchtime recital. Arguably, however, Rachmaninoff’s Trio élégiaque No.1 in G minor TNii/34 and Beethoven’s Piano Trio No.4 in B-flat major Op.11 occupy rather different positions in their composers’ respective outputs.

Though the Beethoven Trio, composed at age 26 in 1797, predates his long series of mature masterpieces, it comes close to half-way through his not particularly long lifespan and postdates some works that remain core repertoire today, including piano sonatas, piano trios, ‘cello sonatas, and even his first two piano concertos. Rachmaninoff’s Trio, by contrast, was written at only 19 years from his virtually exact statutory three-score-and-ten and – with the exception of the First Piano Concerto, completed six months before in mid-1891 but thoroughly revised in 1917 – is his earliest piece to be frequently performed today.

Rachmaninoff in 1892. 
So it’s all the more remarkable that the melodic arcs, harmonies, and cadences of the Trio élégiaque’s opening theme virtually shout from the rooftops that its composer is Rachmaninoff, a voice fully formed indeed. Close adherence to the unusual initial marking Lento lugubre can, however, turn its single movement into a quarter-hour dirge, but fortunately Trio Céleste kept things moving from the get-go.

Their vigorous performance, holding the angst quotient well under control but still managing to relish fully the rich melodic content, emphasized its strong quasi-sonata structure and left me thinking – not for the first time – that this Trio sounds far more like the first movement of a multi-movement work than a self-contained whole. 

I wonder whether an unconscious sense of this was responsible for the delayed and hesitant applause that greeted the performance, and then whether a subliminal desire not to be caught out again caused the sprinkle of clapping that followed the first movement of the Beethoven Trio. On the other hand, this could simply have been appreciation of the smiling fleetness with which Trio Céleste drove it, the absence of the longish exposition repeat giving even more the feel of an airborne jeu d’esprit

Beethoven in 1801: Portrait by Carl Traugott Riedel. 
Beethoven can sometimes sound as if he is simply having fun, and this is one of those works. It stands a little to one side in his sequence of piano trios between the large-scale first three that comprise Op.1 and the contrasting mature pair of Op.70, not only due to its lightness and brevity but also because its scoring is for clarinet or violin.

The wryly capricious Allegro con brio first movement gives way to a brief, ternary-form Adagio, based on a tender, lullaby-like melody. Trio Céleste were just a bit forthright for my taste in this movement, and at the end their concentration had to withstand the prolonged noise from a walkie-talkie that had inadvertently been left switched on!

Beethoven's sense of fun really bursts out in the finale. The work has the nickname “Gassenhauer” – translatable as “street song” or “pop hit” – and this refers to the theme from a then-popular stage farce by the now pretty much forgotten Joseph Weigl (1766-1846) that Beethoven uses for the impish set of nine variations that comprise his third and final movement.

This “Pria ch’io l’impegno” is the sort of earworm tune that gets you at one hearing, but Beethoven ensures that you’re thoroughly infected by the end, tossing it around the three instruments, swinging it theatrically from con fuoco, to Minore, to Maggiore, and back, and back again. Of course, he builds in plenty of technical challenges in the service of the fun, and Trio Céleste relished every minute of it – and so did the audience. The next time anyone bemoans to you that they find Beethoven “a bit heavy”, just play them the finale of his Fourth Piano Trio, and watch their face. 

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“First Fridays at First!”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, December 1, 2017. Photos: Trio Céleste: www.trioceleste.com; Beethoven: Wikimedia Commons; Rachmaninoff: Artcorusse.