Elegance and Fire at Fletcher
by Joe & Elizabeth Kahn
Fletcher Opera Theater, Raleigh, Sunday, March 20: Chamber ensembles usually have long lives, but often in name only. Personnel change and retire, with only the name remaining constant.
Not so with the Abegg Piano Trio, named after Robert Schumann's Abegg Variations, Op. 1. Violinist Ulrich Beetz, cellist Birgit Erichson and pianist Gerrit Zitterbart formed the Trio in 1976 at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hannover, and have been playing together ever since, racking up prizes and recording over 25 CDs. And the long cooperation shows, in a smooth performance, perfect timing and impeccable balance.
The program was conservative, starting off with early Beethoven, followed by Ravel and ending with Dvorák. But within this range, the Abegg musicians demonstrated their musicianship by adapting their approach to the spirit and the period of the piece.
Beethoven's Piano Trio in c minor, Op. 1, No. 3, is the most innovative of his three early piano trios. The strong dynamic contrasts, the expanded harmonic language, the use of the cello as an equal partner, as well as the fact that it was the first chamber work with piano to have a fourth movement – these were totally new to audiences and critics alike. Haydn, present at a performance of the three Op. 1 trios, advised Beethoven against publishing the third, considering it too unconventional for Vienna's taste. Even now, over 200 years later, it is still a wild card. The Abegg Trio gave it a very "classical" performance, adhering strictly to the tempi and understating the emotional intensity – a performance practice that would have fit well the end of the 18th century.
Maurice Ravel's Piano Trio in a minor, composed on the eve of W.W.I, is an elegant and gentle work, at least in its first three movements. The last movement, written after the outbreak of the war, uses a wild Basque theme and towards the end sounds as if Ravel had wished he had a larger ensemble at his disposal; in what was for him an unusual extravagance, the final pages are massively scored, especially for the piano, and are marked toujours ff – loud all the time. The Abegg's performance was elegant and gentle but did not generate much heat, even in the last movement.
This somewhat sedate approach to music changed with the last work on the program, Antonín Dvorák's Piano Trio in e minor, Op.90, usually known as the "Dumky Trio." The Abegg Trio gave it one of the most wildly Romantic performances we have ever heard, with wide swings of mood and flexible tempi in the extreme. It was an exciting way to present a warhorse and give it new life. Dvorák's Trio has a very prominent role for the cello, and in Fletcher Hall, with its dry acoustics that tend to mute the high notes, Erichson's cello, with its warm tone, was the centerpiece. Her playing was a delight to watch as well.
At each concert, the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild usually presents a pre-concert performance featuring student chamber ensembles from the high schools and colleges of the area. These performances are a mixed bag as far as quality is concerned but Sunday's performers deserve special congratulations. The student string quartet of the Youth Chamber Music Program of the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle, coached by Virginia Hudson, presented an emotionally and musically most challenging work, Dmitry Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8, Op.110. These kids not only played well and in tune, but also gave a mature reading to a work fraught with tension and despair. The quartet consists of violinists Ashley Martin of Cardinal Gibbons High School and Sabu Yamamoto of Enloe High School, violist Neda Poudeyhimi of Apex High School and cellist Jessica Tirpak, also of Enloe High School.