Metropolitan Museum of Art
Franz Joseph Haydn: Trio in A, H. XV, # 18
Ludwig van Beethoven: Trio # 2
Franz Schubert: Trio # 2
Beaux Arts Trio
Menahem Pressler (piano)
Young Uck Kim (violin)
Antonio Meneses (cello)
In at least three cases, premature mortality had a significant effect on the course of classical music history. Mozart, of course, is the most famous example. During his last years he not only advanced the complexities of the symphony exponentially, but he also seemed to have found a truer voice, a sense of sheer joy in his own creative powers. The last few measures of Act I of The Magic Flute indicate, by the repeat of one exultant phrase, that Mozart had become more than the greatest of all composers, he had also become a fan of the greatest of all composers. Alban Berg was singlehandedly taming the beast of pantonality into a luxuriant house pet, a dear companion able to provide comfort and solace under the most trying of circumstances. His Violin Concerto describes the entire journey of grief towards a spiritually centered resolution. The bite of that wasp did much damage to the fate of music in the second half of the twentieth century; if Berg had lived another twenty years, I have no doubt that contemporary art music would be much more accessible to its now icily lonely audience.
But perhaps no death was as significant as that of Franz Peter Schubert at the obscene age of 31. Besides that unique sense of melancholy and the overflowing fountain of melodic richness, Schubert was developing musical forms as an evolution (as opposed to Beethoven’s revolution). The posthumous discovery by Robert Schumann of Schubert’s ”Great C Major” Symphony was a watershed for the 19th century serious music movement, and, comparing this work to his previous attempts in the medium demonstrates that he was embarking on a new, grandiose path. A Schubertian always has difficulty in deciding which genre of the almost 1000 works in the Deutsch catalog on which to concentrate, but a case can certainly be made for the premise that it was in chamber music where this wallflower really shone at the ball. It is impossible (go ahead and try it) to find a work in this form more profoundly satisfying than the ”Trout”, the String Quintet or one of the two mighty Trios, Opp. 99 and 100. What characterizes the music of all three of these giants of Vienna is that, like the stories of their lives themselves, their art remains always youthful and energetic, even (or perhaps especially) at its most painful.
The Beaux Arts performance of the Schubert E Flat was most particularly remarkable for its organic nature. I was somewhat taken aback at the outset, as it seemed as if there were a lack of a proper sense of drama and weight to the proceedings, but this was simply a well thought out device for increasing the innate Sturm und Drang within. This intelligent interpretation grew into its pain, so that after a while we felt that we were more than just empathetic observers in some sort of ironic paradigm; we were instead the owners and cherishers of the emotional struggle at hand. The trio exudes a marvelously controlled intensity throughout, their technical skills beyond reproach, their interpretive ones prodigious. The opening of the second movement was the very definition of relentlessness (those who have seen the film Barry Lyndon can relate) and was, at the same time, quiet and surprisingly refined. This was performance of the highest quality of artistic communication.
The first half of the program was devoted to an acoustical recreation of another era, the measured and grandly designed period which led up to that other exciting fin-de-siecle. The Haydn was a perfect vehicle for the soft and yet commanding touch of Menahem Pressler and the clear tones of his two stringed cohorts. The humor of the piece was deliciously offered as tribute, many in the crowd laughing out loud, a rare occurrence in “absolute” music, which speaks volumes about this group’s thespian abilities. The Beethoven was spirited, the Finale: Presto suitably impressive. Perhaps the finest performance of the evening was its Adagio, built on a lovingly detailed foundation and spiraling upwards towards Heaven in these more than capable hands.
The entire program consisted of the music of youth, the Haydn in spirt, the Beethoven an example of his early period, the Schubert, well, you know. This seemed particularly on point, as the demographics of the trio have changed drastically. The 2000 census of the Beaux Arts no longer finds three senior members but rather only one, Isadore Cohen and Bernard Greenhouse now both retired. In their place are the thirty-something Young Uck Kim and Antonio Meneses. Mr. Kim is a very fine player, possessing a solid and warm tone, while Mr. Meneses is a chamber group’s dream performer, obviously willing to sacrifice his voice at times for the good of the tutti sound. When he did have a chance to solo, for example in the Schubert Andante, he was pure melted butter. Eventually Mr. Pressler will decide to move on and, at this point, the trio will evolve once again. They seem determined to keep their sound intact and we are all the more youthful for it.
Frederick L. Kirshnit