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Say what you will about the three musicians who performed Sunday for the St. Stephen's Concert Series, these people are not afraid of hard work. Three big works filled out the program – two of them brilliant masterpieces of the repertoire and another that may not be quite so grand but is a technical challenge of the highest order.
The masterpieces are the Ravel Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello; and Beethoven's "Archduke" Trio, Op. 97. These two magnificent works, separated by about a century, are among the most beloved of their kind. Ravel's trio is remarkable for its soaring lyricism, great bursts of passion and ultimate optimism. The "Archduke" – well, let's just call it for what it is: the finest expression of its kind the world may ever know.
But first, the audience had to eat a little spinach. That came in the form of Ravel's Sonata for Violin and Cello, a complex, knotty work that demanded the most of cellist Yeesun Kim and violinist Nicholas Kitchen.
The two players – husband and wife members of the Borromeo String Quartet – attacked it bravely and with passion matched by accuracy. The writing makes one keenly aware of how exposed the two players are; no additional strings or piano are present to divert attention from whatever shortcomings may arrive. The duo's performance was as compelling, competent, and persuasive as any I have come across; and I am not afraid to admit going online to rummage performances in order to re-familiarize myself with this work.
As an audience pleaser, the Sonata simply is not in the company of the composer's Trio or his magnificent Quartet. It was composed later than the Trio, and Ravel by then had obviously been influenced by Béla Bartók's use of folk melody. But among the pleasures of this performance was the clean, robust sound that came from the fine, rare instruments. (Kitchen plays a Guarneri; Kim, a Peregrino Zanetto.)
If the Sonata seemed to lack some of the consistent and unmistakable signatures that identify Ravel's music, the Trio fairly shouts the composer's name.
The Trio is, like the Sonata, in four movements. The first opens in a dreamy, slowish kind of way, but as the themes are developed listeners encounter peaks of high drama and wonder. The two string players were joined here by 19-year-old pianist Alexander Beyer, who finely tailored his dynamics so he did not overwhelm his colleagues.
If the performance of the first movement felt somewhat reserved – and it did, if just a bit – the piece came alive in the dazzling scherzo. Here that pianist's role becomes that of a virtuoso. There is no fear of drowning out the string players; Ravel's writing for the violin and cello is equally bold and thrilling. At the exultant conclusion of the scherzo a few gasps of delight arose from the audience.
The third movement, a haunting and soulful passacaglia, beautifully sets up the wild ride that is the finale. This last movement, which is said to have been rushed as Ravel desperately sought to finish it and sign up for the Great War in 1914, is itself a rush – a great swirl of changing meters and thunder from the piano. The final measures are an unashamed cry of joy and victory. The performance could hardly have been more heartfelt.
Finally, Beethoven's "Archduke." It seems negligent to discuss this work without providing a little background about its namesake. Archduke Rudolf of Austria was a remarkable man, a noble of taste, talent and generosity. He was an excellent pianist himself, and he began studying piano and composition with Beethoven in 1804. He would become Beethoven's student, friend, and patron for the rest of the composer's life. Beethoven dedicated some of his greatest works to him, including the fourth and fifth piano concertos, the Opus 106 and Opus 111 piano sonatas, and the Missa Solemnis.
The trio bearing the duke's name is one of the great monumental works of the composer's second maturity. It is grand in scope, both pastoral and noble in nature, and, need it be said, exquisitely beautiful.
The three performers were clearly of one interpretive mind. Theirs was a full-throated reading, muscular and vibrant, assertive and highly musical. The piano is required to do much of the heavy lifting, and it was in that duty that pianist Beyer proved his mettle. The sound coming from the fine Steinway, rented for this occasion, was rich and balanced. Beyer played with great authority and sensitivity.
As wonderful as the piano sounds were, my ear kept being drawn to the cello lines, particularly in the sublime slow movement. The "Archduke" is a fine example of what we could call Beethoven's cello liberation project, and in Yeesun Kim's performance, especially during those meltingly beautiful sighs that close the slow movement, Beethoven had a great champion.
In all, another grand day at St. Stephen's.
A footnote: the critic clearly needs to get out more. This was the first time he observed the string players using laptops on their music stands. No more desperate clawing at dog-eared pages to keep up. Page turning is achieved by a quick tap of a foot pedal.
What's next, electric guitars?