Thursday, October 31, 2019

The “Archduke” And Friends At The SBCMS

Composer and dedicatee of the "Archduke" Piano Trio.
left: Beethoven in 1815, painted by Joseph Willibrord Mähler;
right: Archduke Rudolf of Austria: portrait by Johann Baptist von Lampi the Elder.


Hollywood Piano Trio, South Bay Chamber Music Society, Los Angeles Harbor College

For the second time running, circumstances sent us to the SBCMS’s Los Angeles Harbor College performance on Friday night rather than the Sunday afternoon alternative in the Pacific Unitarian Church on top of the Palos Verdes Peninsula; and for all that venue’s light, spacious interior, not to mention the terrific views from the terrace outside, there’s no doubt that the College recital hall’s broad, shallow, tiered space, comfortable seating, and warm, analytical acoustic afford the more involving musical experience.

Roberto Cani.
From a fairly close seat, that acoustic served to differentiate rather than blend the timbres of the Hollywood Trio’s instruments, violinist Roberto Cani’s fluid, husky, rather veiled tone very distinct from the rock-solid underpinning of Eric Byers’ cello, and both set off by the crisp rhythmic impetus of the College Steinway under the fingers of pianist Inna Faliks.

All this gave Haydn’s Piano Trio No.39 in G major Hob.XV:25, composed in 1795, a somewhat different character from another performance given nearby earlier this year (reviewed here). Rather than the warm amiability evinced then, the Hollywood Trio launched the theme-and-variations first movement with an eager pointedness that rather belied its Andante marking. By contrast, they phrased the Poco adagio, cantabile, second movement with an amplitude that definitely glanced towards the romanticism to come in the next century’s early decades.

Eric Byers.
The finale of this oft-nicknamed “Gypsy” trio is headed Rondo a l’Ongarese. Kudos to program-note writer Boglárka Kiss, D.M.A., for taking the trouble to point out some differences between “gypsy” and “Hungarian” folk music, though I confess to not clearly discerning which of them Haydn echoes. The Hollywood Trio’s performance was close to the Presto marking, but in its sharp assertiveness lacked some of the rollicking foot-stamping quality which the gypsy/Hungarian interludes that punctuate repetitions of the rondo theme can comfortably take.

Inna Faliks.
Nonetheless, the inexhaustible inventiveness of Haydn in late middle age was demonstrated thoroughly—so now it would be good to hear some of his many other and less-often-played piano trios. The Russian Anton Arensky (1861-1906), by contrast, left only two works in the genre, and again, it would be nice if his rather Brahmsian Piano Trio No. 2, Op. 73 in F minor got as many live airings as the distinctively Tchaikovskian Piano Trio No. 1, Op. 32 in D minor from 1894, with which the Hollywood Piano Trio continued their recital.

Admittedly though, the latter does open with a killer main theme on the violin, which through its lengthy course swings between optimism and lament, aspiration and potential tragic fall. Mr. Cani expressed this with a restraint, even a passing hesitancy, that was strikingly contrasted when the cello took over, with Mr. Byers’ instrument projecting the melody with a full-throated, indeed Slavic, growl. Observation of the exposition repeat underlined the scale of this opening Allegro moderato movement, and the performance continued to gain breadth with a quite easy-going tempo for the Scherzo’s nominal Allegro molto.

Anton Arensky:
a portrait from 1901.
From sublime dueting between the muted cello and violin, the fulsomely romantic Elegia slow movement proceeded like the evocation of some moonlit lake, while the concisely tensile Finale, kicked off by an imperiously arresting handling of the opening flourish by Ms. Faliks, was duly navigated back in masterful fashion through echoes of its predecessor to the final haunting reappearance of the first movement main theme, before it—and the whole work—ground down to its emphatic but unsparingly bleak conclusion.

Beethoven’s Piano Trio No. 7 in B-flat major, Op. 97, composed in 1811 and dedicated, like several others of his works, to the Hapsburg scion Archduke Rudolf of Austria, was the last and largest of his contributions to the genre. It opens with one of his most spacious and memorable first subjects, but this the Hollywoods took with a welcome alacrity, more plain Allegro than Allegro moderato as marked, as if eager to get started on the long journey.

To my ears they seemed a little less emphatic in the (welcome) exposition repeat, as if settling in on that journey, and then the separating clarity of the LAHC hall acoustic and the improvisatory freedom of the Trio's playing made particularly relishable the harmonic and melodic twists and turns that Beethoven executes in the first movement’s development section—which seem at the same time exhilaratingly unexpected and immediately inevitable.

The Scherzo presents a conundrum for performers. Unlike most such movements in Classical sonata-form works, but in common with some of Beethoven’s other expansive “middle-period” pieces, it eschews the pattern of pairs of brief repeated sections for the Scherzo and Trio, followed by a da capo without repeats of the Scherzo. Instead a much more elaborate Scherzo, without literal repeats, leads straight into—at the same Allegro tempo—a long and weirdly subterranean Trio that slithers up from the depths in close-packed semi-tone steps before breaking out into a high-stepping march-like section.

The conundrum is that Beethoven marks one huge repeat of all this to be taken before moving into a coda, so that the whole movement has an ABABA+coda shape. This is rarely done as it extends the Scherzo to a length closely matching those of both its imposing predecessor and the radiant Andante cantabile ma però con moto that follows, and unsurprisingly the Hollywood Trio did not observe it. Given their fairly spacious account of the Scherzo, so that even without the big repeat it ran to eight minutes, this was probably the right decision, but… one day?

I felt that their performance of the great slow movement lacked a little of the hymn-like inevitability and “inward” quality that some of the finest accounts of it possess, but when it moved into the Finale—via a stroke of tonal side-stepping genius very similar to that with which Beethoven links the slow movement and finale of his “Emperor” concerto—their combination of powerful emphasis and observation of the Allegro moderato marking enabled a truly exultant acceleration into the final Presto that set the seal on a fine performance of one of the greatest piano trios in the repertoire. 


South Bay Chamber Music Society, Music Department Recital Hall, Los Angeles Harbor College, Wilmington, 8pm, Friday, October 25, 2019.
Photos: Beethoven: Wikimedia Commons; Archduke Rudolf: Wikimedia Commons; Roberto Cani: L’Italo-Americano; Eric Byers: Henceforth Records; Inna Faliks: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco; Arensky: Music Toronto.

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