Thursday, September 12, 2019

A Grand Tchaikovsky Opening for “FF@F!–fff” 2019-2020

Portrait of Tchaikovsky in 1893, by Nikolai Kuznetsov.


La Bella Vita Trio, First Fridays at First!–fff, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

Nadezhada von Meck.
The origins and progress of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor Op. 50 are well documented in his correspondence with his patroness Nadezhda von Meck—from his initial rejection in November 1880 of her suggestion of a work in that genre on grounds of acoustic incompatibility between the instruments; through growing interest and start of composition despite that antipathy; then increasing engagement with the challenges; and finally his more-or-less satisfied completion of the piece, some time in January 1882, and its dedication to the memory of his friend Nikolai Rubinstein who had died during its composition.

Though nominally in only two movements, Tchaikovsky’s Trio grew into the longest of all his chamber works, with that second movement—a theme with 12 large variations, the last of which mainly functions as a big-boned and vigorous finale to the whole work—at around a half-hour the most extensive in his entire output regardless of genre. Thus to make it the first program in the South Bay’s new season(s) of chamber music series, particularly within the slenderish confines of "First Fridays at First!–fff"’s normal timeslot, was a bold venture indeed.

La Bella Vita Trio: l-r Jacopo Giacopuzzi, Aleksander Koelbel, Lauri Rantamoijanen.

La Bella Vita Trio (pianist Jacopo Giacopuzzi from Italy, violinist Aleksander Koelbel from Denmark, and cellist Lauri Rantamoijanen from Finland) delivered a gripping and committed performance, in which perhaps the most remarkable feature was their constant attention to instrumental balance so that the quite colossal piano part, with its many pages of close-packed chordal writing—overall adding up to more notes than most piano concertos— did not simply overmatch and squash the others.

The two strings arrested attention from the outset as, over the piano’s teeming arpeggiated accompaniment, they handed back and forth to each other the eloquent twists and turns of Tchaikovsky’s unforgettable principal theme. The first movement’s title, Pezzo elegiaco, might lead one to expect something rhapsodic, informal, and perhaps small-scale, but in fact it’s an expansive 17-minute sonata design, with the sheer beauty and eloquence of the themes masking any formal stiffness. The Trio’s close attention to tempo relationships indeed clarified its structure, with the need not to let it sprawl led by the piano’s cracking pace that challenged the violin and cello to really fly.

On to the second movement. The lengthy, multi-sectional theme, delivered by the piano alone, is wonderfully crafted to enable rich variety in the variations that follow, which were thoughtfully listed in the program leaflet. However, I had been wondering ahead of time how this behemoth of a piece could be accommodated in the timeframe—and the answer was to not play quite all of it. Thus any attendees carefully following the list through the manifold beauties of the first seven variations would have been wrong-footed when expectations of the vigorous fugue of Variation XIII were met instead by the reflective and rapturous strains of the Andante flebile, ma non tanto Variation IX. 

Nikolai Rubinstein
Omitting the eighth variation is sanctioned in the score, as is a huge cut near the start of the Variazioni finale. This also the Trio observed, admittedly tightening the structure but undeniably affecting the overall balance of the work. This drastic shortening of the main Allegro risoluto e con fuoco body of the finale had the effect of throwing more weight onto the Andante con moto—Lugubre coda, which after the first performance (on the first anniversary of Rubinstein’s death) was separated off and had its piano part entirely rewritten. La Bella Vita Trio gave this—where the great main theme from the first movement cyclically returns in what was surely a conscious memorialization of Rubinstein—a long-drawn and passionate reading that brought their interpretation to a memorable conclusion.

With these two cuts enabling the whole work to be brought in within 40 minutes, they proceeded to an encore, which was nothing less than the entire first movement of Schubert’s Piano Trio No.1 in B-flat major D. 898. This I thought was a mistake: for one thing, it’s simply too long for an encore, and for this listener at least, it just felt wrong not to proceed to the remainder of this glorious masterpiece. Sticking with Schubert, a better choice might have been the relatively little-played and stand-alone Notturno in E-flat major D. 897, but… why not simply have played all of the Tchaikovsky?


“First Fridays at First! – fff”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, September 6, 2019. Images: Tchaikovsky: Wikimedia Commons; Nadezhda von Meck: Tchaikovsky Research; the performers: Courtesy Classical Crossroads Inc; Rubinstein: Wikimedia Commons.

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