Saturday, August 3, 2013

Chamber Music Northwest musicians superb in all-Beethoven concert

[Photo of Allessio Bax by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco]

Review by Susan Joyce

I will go a long way out of my way, and even ford a muddy stream or two, to hear good Beethoven played. Fortunately, on July 9, I didn't have to. CMNW's Beethoven week, featuring a Beethoven violin sonata, Beethoven string quartets, and the Archduke trio, was underway, and the Trimet Bus 20 took me from downtown Portland the Catlin Gabel school in a matter of 30 minutes. I tripped up the pleasant garden path with my fellow concertgoers, and in moments was sitting mere feet from the stage in a cool auditorium next to Carl, a classical music aficionado and CMNW regular who pops up like a familiar piece of shrubbery at every concert I've attended this year. We are now like old pals.

The evening's programming was sure to please any Beethoven lover. The choice of the string quartet, op 92, "Serioso", followed by the violin sonata in G, op. 96, and finishing with the Archduke trio, allowed the listener to hear pieces of three differing characters of a composer who is often not appreciated in his true complexity. One heard the terse, urgently dramatic Beethoven in the "Serioso" quartet, the elegantly classical, somewhat interior Beethoven in the violin sonata in G, and the good humored, accessible Beethoven in the Archduke trio.

The key word for this concert, despite the blazing technique displayed and the sometimes volcanic heat emitting from Beethoven's scores, was 'subtle'. This is because while the programming featured barnstormers such as the Archduke trio, and the strongly dramatic string quartet in F, op 92, the highlight of the program was, for me, the subtle understanding of and rendering Beethoven as a firstly a classical composer, rooted in the classical style. This was heard in all the pieces in the program, but most of all in the playing of the violin sonata in G major, op. 96, played by Alessio Bax, pianist, and Martin Beaver, violinist of the Tokyo Quartet. I consider their performance of this piece important for two reasons: first, it gave the listener an idea of the lesser-heard side of Beethoven, the more subtle and interior musical dialogues he was capable of. Secondly, it was an ideal vehicle to highlight the elegant musical artistry of Bax and Beaver as a duo.

Although I missed the pre-concert talk for this program, I encountered the approachable Beaver in the hallway at intermission explaining to another concertgoer that Beethoven wrote this sonata in particular for a violinist who was no longer in his prime, so Beethoven had to restrain himself in the technical range in this sonata. The result is a piece that gives insight into the lyrical beauty Beethoven could create during his quieter moments: we hear Beethoven's love of impressionistic arpeggio sequences, double trills, cascading triplets,and some of the deeply moving slow themes he was capable of, particularly in the piano's opening to the second movement. For me, although obviously not a masterpiece of the same level, this sonata is somewhat reminiscent of the type of writing Beethoven employed in the Fourth Piano Concerto in G, Beethoven's most reflective and 'interior' piano concerto.

This sonata opens with trill figures repeated by each instrument before launching into a gently acrobatic conversation. The piano and violin part closely mirror each other, and in sections where the instruments utter unison phrases, the agreement of articulation and timing displayed by Bax and Beaver was almost uncanny. (Beaver later revealed that the two had had time to rehearse in NY before coming the the festival, but that it was the first time the two had performed together.) Close to the stage, I could see Bax's hands, which were visible markers of the preparation he makes for each note; an intuitively discriminating pianist, he is capable of minute changes in timing and force which make him a fine chamber musician. The introduction to the adagio espressivo, which is the piano's alone in this piece, was exquisitely played: Bax propelled it forward- then, by a change of direction in the phrasing, not speed, he expressed the finely tinged regret it contained. The last movement is a wilderness of development in which Beethoven eschewed all obvious pathways- Bax and Beaver brought the audience through the thicket to the typically Beethovenian ending. Bax and Beaver seemed to me to be temperamentally very suited as a chamber music duo, so I hope to see them in this capacity again.

The concert started with the Miro quartet playing the op. 92 quartet in F minor, the "Serioso". The quartet strode onto the stage as if just exiting from the white heat of Beethoven's brain, and proceeded to dispense from within this chamber of intensity posthaste. Partly because they were all in white suits, and partly because they were subtly attentive to each other, leaning in and turning towards each other, they struck me during the performance as a quartet of 19th century ship's officers and a bartender having an impromptu but serious late-night discussion about tactics and survival prospects as a storm brews in the distance. Joshua Gindele, the cellist, is a communicative, soulful player, the understanding, actively listening bartender of the group. I have never seen a chamber music make more eye contact with his fellow players. Daniel Ching is the stoic captain. All the players were keenly attuned to one another. The terse compression and force of Beethoven's string quartet writing in this piece was fully appreciated by the players. Perhaps because of the intense motivic compression and development, I wished for a little more lyrical expansion during those few calmer moments of the piece, especially for any in the audience not already very familiar with Beethoven's quartets, but this was a small quibble in such a remarkable performance that was almost breathtaking.

The Archduke Trio, op 97, finished out the concert, with Bax back onstage with Philip Setzer, violinist, and Fred Sherry, cellist. There was a slight roughness to this rendition of the trio that I found pleasant. The trio continued to display what I love about fine Beethoven playing-- to understand the departure from classical convention, you have to appreciate the convention. There is classical convention in this piece, and there is departure. Cellist Fred Sherry seems to love Beethoven- every now and then as he hit sforzando or a subito piano he would briefly let loose a wolfish grin. Since it is as fun for me to see people enjoy playing Beethoven as to hear it, I left a very happy concertgoer.

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