Metropolitan Museum of Art
Aaron Copland: Vitebsk
Ludwig van Beethoven: Trio # 1
Johannes Brahms: Trio # 1
Beaux Arts Trio
Menahem Pressler (piano)
Young Uck Kim (violin)
Antonio Meneses (cello)
When he was a child learning the piano and composing little operas for his own family circle to perform, Serge Prokofieff had only one creative fear: he was terrified to touch a black key because he did not consider himself ready to explore the tonal universe beyond C major and A minor. He certainly made up for his youthful phobia, composing some of the most acerbically dissonant music of the twentieth century. When Jean Sibelius was first considering the outlet of musical composition, he translated chordal stimuli unconsciously into visual washes of color and his mature symphonic output reflects this transmogrification of artistic sensibilities into a direct communication between composer and listener unique in music history. It is fascinating to evaluate, with the benefit of historical perspective, the early works of the great composers to see when they first found their true voice and how these attempts grew into the bounty of their accumulated output. Youth was very much on the minds of the Beaux Arts Trio last evening at the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium and the one overriding experience of the recital as a whole was a palpable sense of vitality.
This is the perfect group to expound on the energies of youth, as two thirds of its membership is relatively new and fresh. I must confess to never totally warming up to this famous trio in their many years of continuous partnership and, even though I recognized their right to be considered eminent, I was always left with a little saccharine hangover after a night in the company of the original Beaux Arts. Now that Isadore Cohen and Bernard Greenhouse have been replaced by Young Uck Kim and Antonio Meneses, however, I am as swept up as the rest of the admiring throng by their solid blending of tone and expressive but refined touch within the classic chamber repertoire. In many ways the most energetic of the three, Menahem Pressler now presides from the keyboard less as an elder statesman and more as a vibrant team captain. This night the group presented the early efforts of three composers, the now virtually obligatory common thread being the echoes of young adulthood.
These works are not juvenilia interesting only for their archeological value but rather fully developed pieces of serious art music that just happen to have been generated at the very beginning of the evolutionary scale. Vitebsk comes from the Pleistocene era of the life of Aaron Copland before he discovered that a Jewish kid from Brooklyn could indeed become the voice of America. Here he is still obsessed with his own ethnicity, flaying one minor second to death and saying no more in five minutes than Bartok would have done in two measures. The curiosity here is how these Oriental touches disappeared over time as Copland’s music became increasingly white bread. The performance was certainly spirited although the piece left me cold.
The innocence and grace of the Beethoven was aristocratically conveyed in a highly stylized and delicate reading. In a “name that tune” type of pop quiz, most music lovers would come down solidly on the side of Haydn as its author and it is fascinating to think of this most revolutionary of composers starting out as a docile copier of accepted musical styles. The concert venue made me think of the young Beethoven as one of those art students that one always sees at the museum, copying in charcoals or inks the great masters. His true voice is manifest in this trio of early trios, but it is well hidden. The Beaux Arts sound more expertly balanced than even last season, emphasizing that they are very much a work in progress, already looking forward to a second generation of mastery and maturity (and, of course, in time Pressler will move on as well).
The highlight of the evening was certainly the Brahms which bursts forth Minerva-like as a gorgeous statement of romanticism in full flower and seems to spring sui generis from the heart and mind of this essentially home-grown and “untrained” fledgling composer. The opening phrase of the B Major is so electric as to recall the reaction of Robert Schumann, who stopped the twenty-something Brahms in mid demonstration of his first piano works to run and fetch Clara to hear this “new Messiah”. One historical footnote in all of this is that Beethoven’s early submission to the compositional techniques of his elders preceded a lifetime of musical iconoclasm, whereas Brahms’ initial outpouring of expressive emotion led over the years to a temperance and refinement of his musical material along decidedly conservative lines, the leonine embodiment of instrumental romantic thought seeking solace and refuge in the musical models of the past, the very same moulds that Beethoven worked so feverishly to break. Brahms grew older and more secure while Beethoven evolved steadily younger and increasingly rebellious. What was most earcatching in this performance was the maturation of Meneses, now a cellist of superb beauty of tone and developing an enviable palette of controlled intensity. His big solo in the Adagio was suitably expansive, but still governed by the proper limits of subtlety (truth be told, I prefer a broader and less obviously contained approach, more on the lines of Sharon Robinson). One can sense the growth of a musical organism here; I can only envision the Beaux Arts becoming even more profound with the passage of time.
A parting shot of adrenaline was delivered with a white-hot traversal of a Shostakovich Scherzo. As my companion and I left the hall, passing the teenaged sarcophagi of the Met’s Egyptian section, we emerged into a New York night fortified by a conscious burst of energy and a newly awakened appreciation for the physical and spiritual magic that is the enthusiasm of youth.
Frederick L. Kirshnit