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Celebration and Farewell

Los Angeles
The Ace Gallery, Beverly Hills
04/17/2008 -  
Schubert: Trio No. 1 in B-fat major, Op. 99 (D.898)
Gyorgy Kurtag: Work for Piano Trio
Schubert: Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 100 (D.929)

The Beaux Arts Trio: Mehahem Pressler (piano), Antonio Meneses (cello), Daniel Hope (violin)

On their final world tour, The Beaux Arts Trio offered a stunningly moving performance at the Ace Gallery in Beverly Hills. After many decades of prominence on the international chamber music scene, the trio is closing shop. While the trio has taken on new cellists and violinists over the years, pianist Menahem Pressler has led the group from the keyboard since their first concert in 1955. When Daniel Hope decided to focus on his burgeoning solo violin career, they chose to disband, rather than to break in another member.

Mr. Eric Wilson, who curates the Ace Gallery chamber series and who has directed a similar program in Vancouver for decades, introduced the musicians. He described meeting the trio for the first time 47 years ago, and since then attending 44 of their performances. He assured us that the trio was at its best right now. No one was disappointed.

The Ace Gallery chamber series has been the best-kept musical secret in Los Angeles. To my knowledge, this was the first of these concerts to be reviewed. Past performances include The Emerson, The Borodin and The Takas String Quartets, among others. While not publicized, the concerts are always well attended. Gallery founder Douglas Chrismas masterminded the redesign of a former bank building into a subtly spectacular space for art, and now for music. The art and architecture community has the inside track on these extraordinary events, which will now inevitably become better known.

Menahem Pressler movingly introduced the performance itself. Schubert, who died at 31, wrote the Opus 99, Trio No. 1 as a very sick man, in the last six months of his life. And yet, Pressler noted, the music is filled with all that is beautiful. As Robert Schumann remarked, this is the music that angels listen to when they are on vacation.

In the very first bars, it was clear that these musicians are brilliant equals. Each individual penetrates to the heart of the score, but they also seem to play with one mind. While they often glanced at one another, there was clearly no need for Pressler to “conduct” from the piano. In the opening to the second movement, “Andante un poco mosso,” Meneses lyricism was heart-rending. In reprising the melody, Daniel Hope’s violin was utter strength and tenderness. The violin and cello unisons in the final Rondo: Allegro vivace were astonishing in their power and grace. The entire performance was infinitely gentle.

Mr. Pressler also introduced the work that his friend Gyorgy Kurtag composed for them. He spoke of the demands that Kurtag’s whispering music makes on both the players and the audience. He described the short piece as a meditation that murmurs only one word, one word that we must be still and quiet enough to hear. They played the challenging contemporary piece twice, not as a repeat, but rather to help us see more clearly into its depths.

To begin the second half of the evening, Pressler introduced the next Schubert trio. He said that in a certain passage one could hear the moment of Schubert’s death, but that the sense was not tragic, but rather the feeling of finding his way toward heaven. In the opening of the trio, the piano part echoes one of Schubert’s gorgeous Impromptus. Later, the piano also recalls the charm of the Trout Quintet, bright and life affirming. The second movement opens with the piano and then the cello, deeper and more discursive than the Trout, the strings heart-rending once again. There is even ferocity beneath the beautiful surface, controlled and subtly expressed, as if a trout could cry out underwater. The dynamics were extraordinary, impossibly intense hammer blows of forte then back to pianissimo.

For an encore, they offered the packed room a Scherzo from one of Shostakovich’s trios. The piano and strings screamed out in pain, seeking redemption and violence. The contrast to Schubert was appalling, the virtuosity outrageous. The audience gasped.

The Beaux Arts Trio gave the impression of a lion in its prime, not that of a group ready to break up. Menahem Pressler, a man well into his eighties, overflowed with even more life force than the others. Driven by a demonic energy, he seemed inhabited by the soul of angel. The music itself is his fountain of youth. Michael Kinsley, the founder of Slate.com, wrote last month in the New Yorker about the great competition to live the longest and the fullest. It would be hard to compete with Menahem Pressler.

Thomas Aujero Small



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