Berlin Piano Trio
Rihm / Schumann / Weinberg
Zimmermannhaus, Brugg, 2018-12-01
I love these chamber music evenings in the Zimmermannhaus in Brugg! The actual concert room is more than just an ideal chamber music venue for just below 100 listeners. It also serves as home for ongoing exhibitions (together with a larger room in the floor underneath), which makes up for a very special atmosphere, and a fairly unusual view onto the “podium”.
This time, as already in the previous concert that I attended at this venue, there was still the exhibition featured photographs by the Swiss art photographer Gabi Vogt (*1976), with the wall behind the Bösendorfer Model 225 showed a gallery of 39 photos (all the same size, in a 3 x 13 arrangement), showing stone blocks in man-made environments.
My wife and I had seats in the last row of the left-side block—seats that we selected on purpose, as these allow me to take photos without disturbing people behind me. Acoustically, the seat selection is irrelevant in this small venue.
This concert was a piano trio recital by the Berlin Piano Trio. This ensemble consists of the following members:
- Krzysztof Polonek, violin (Kraków, Poland)
- Katarzyna Polonek, cello (Poznań, Poland)
- Nikolaus Resa, piano (Berlin, Germany)
After its foundation in 2004, the ensemble’s name was Berolina Trio. It was later changed to Berlin Piano Trio. The ensemble’s career started taking off in 2007, when it won the biggest International Chamber Music Competition in Poland, initiated by Krzysztof Penderecki (*1933). Further competition wins followed in the same year and 2009. For more details and the biographies of its members see the ensemble’s Website.
It’s not the first time that these artists play in this venue: they first played here in the season 2009/2010 and 2012/1013, still as Berolina Trio, then again (now under the current name) in 2015/2016.
As originally posted, the program was “Weinberg — (intermission) — Rihm — Schumann“, in this order. However, the artists started by announcing that they wanted to swap the two halves, which also opened up the opportunity to give explanations on the relation between Wolfgang Rihm‘s composition and the work that followed, by Robert Schumann:
- Wolfgang Rihm (*1952): Piano Trio “Fremde Szene II“
- Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856): Piano Trio No.1 in D minor, op.63
- Mieczysław Weinberg (1919 – 1996): Piano Trio in A minor, op.24 (1945)
Needless to say that the introductory remarks on Rihm’s “Fremde Szene II” were most welcome! I have tried capturing some of the information in the description below.
Rihm: “Fremde Szene II” for Piano Trio (1982 – 1984)
In 1982 – 1984, the German composer Wolfgang Rihm (*1952) composed three “character pieces” for piano trio, which he named Fremde Szene (“Strange Scene”, maybe “Strange Tableau”) I – III. In these three pieces / movements, Rihm explores various aspects of “strangeness”. As the artists explained, the three compositions are meant to connect (or form counterpoints) to the tree piano trios by Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856).
Fremde Szene I
The first one (Fremde Szene I) explores a chain of motifs / pattern, short melody fragments—some tonal (in themselves), some not. These are often combined with “weird”, dissonant sounds from the other two instruments. Rihm avoids “themes”, such as recognizable, recurring melodies or rhythmic pattern. Rather, the composer leaves it up to the listener to explore the soundscape, to look for familiar “items”. And indeed, some “vocal snippets” seem to emerge—spread over several octaves and different instruments, as if it were coincidental. Underneath a ostinate ff tremolo on the piano, isn’t there a baroque or renaissance canon-like sequence? A motoric segment reminds of Bartók, the strings seem to converge towards tonality, and finally, there is a sequence on the piano that strongly reminds of Liszt or Schumann.
Fremde Szene II
The second of the movements, Fremde Szene II, continues on the path of “digesting” existing / past music / styles (doesn’t all music do that anyway?). Fremde Szene I was not part of the program. I still described it, as I think it gives a good preparation for this second piece. The latter (II) has the additional title Charakterstück (Character piece)—a term that was coined by Schumann. And indeed, Rihm’s second movement (the longest of the three) bears strong connections to the romantic composer and his second piano trio, as we will see below.
Fremde Szene III is again quite different. It combines eerie sounds, dissonant “strange” elements (these dominate the first part) with very tonal ones. The latter seem derived from baroque and classical (Beethoven, Schubert) textures & quotes, with influences from Jazz and Minimal Music.
Unlike Fremde Szene I, the “Charakterstück” closely appears to follow Schumann’s path. It starts with some strong accents, but immediately, the piano sets in with “typical Schumann pattern”, and those “reminiscences” also appear in the string instruments. However, inevitably, Rihm reminds us of “his world”, by injecting accents, dissonances, and by reordering, rearranging snippets of Schumann’s score, creating moments of surprise. Very high tones from the violin appear to “pull the pitch”. Despite—or rather: because of—these alterations, the inherent warmth, the flow of emotions in Schumann’s music come through, even somehow amplified. Over long stretches, Schumann’s score appears “stronger” than Rihm’s interjections & alterations: music that one can thoroughly enjoy!
There is also the element of tumbling, of hesitations and “insecurity”, which Rihm highlights from Schumann’s score. The piano and the two string instruments with their distinctly warm sound form a lively discourse, then again split up into independent “streams of action”. There are also moments where baroque elements are pouring in, amidst repetitive pattern, obsessive rhythmic passages. Around the center of the movement, there are segments with alarming high-pitch, dissonant sounds from the strings, then scratching noises / sul ponticello playing. The music almost comes to a temporary halt, slowing down even in the vibrato—then it accelerates and intensifies dramatically, driven by the piano, thins out to scarce flageolet tones, which intensify gradually to incisive intensity.
Scherzo / Humor
As Krzysztof Polonek had pointed out in the introduction, there is certainly an element of humor in Rihm’s work: in a Scherzo-like segment. There is a moment where the strings are slowed down to almost static tones—so slow that the melody is hard to perceive. Into this, the piano adds humorous, erratic interjections, occasionally reminding of bird songs. It’s very much of a collage, i.e., the technique of a montage of sections of Schumann’s music, sometimes showing “pure Schumann” (though hardly ever quoting literally), then again splitting up into independent, seemingly asynchronous streams with individual harmonic and melodic progression.
The piece ends in “aleatoric” pauses, where the piano just plays a fading sequence of scarce, isolated notes, with growing / random delays. Krzysztof Polonek did explain this in the introduction: Rihm apparently alluded to Schumann’s “habit” of accelerating from “fast” to “faster” to “as fast as possible”, then even adding “still faster” towards the end of a fast movement. Rihm wrote these terms above the rests at the end of the movement, hereby erasing any sense of rhythm / pace.
I found this to be very strong, fascinating music — certainly not without its challenges for the musicians. Especially the intonation in the extreme heights, and or in the very expressive segments is tricky. In the Berlin Piano Trio’s performance, one could occasionally feel the intonation challenges—but overall, they fared very well, demonstrating their intimate familiarity with this music.
Schumann: Piano Trio No.1 in D minor, op.63
Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) wrote three piano trios (trio for piano, violin, and cello): the Piano Trio No.1 in D minor, op.63 from 1847 featured in this concert, No.2 in F major, op.80 (1847), and finally No.3 in G minor, op.110 (1851). The trio op.63 comes with four movements:
- Mit Energie und Leidenschaft (With Energy and Passion)
- Lebhaft, doch nicht zu rasch (Vivid, but not too fast) — Trio
- Langsam, mit inniger Empfindung (Slow, with intimate sensation)
- Mit Feuer (With Fire)
I have not explored how close Rihm’s “Fremde Szene” movements specifically associate with Schumann’s three piano trios. If it was a strict 1:1 correlation, then obviously the Piano Trio No.2 in F major, op.80 would have been the better fit to “Fremde Szene II“. However, I found that the more youthful attitude / character of Trio No.1 matched up well with Rihm’s “Fremde Szene II“.
With this well-known music, I’m putting more focus on the performance aspect, but also generally describing my listening experience.
I. Mit Energie und Leidenschaft
In Rihm’s movement I hadn’t really taken notice of the vibrato (except for when the composer obviously asked for it). Here, though, I found it to be on the strong side, certainly on the violin, where it sometimes reached a point where it obscured the intonation. Another aspect that I did not notice in the Rihm movement: when all three instruments were busy, the cello seemed somewhat underrepresented, especially in the intermediate tonal range, where the articulation did not always reach the listener. That’s not the cellist’s fault, I think—rather maybe the characteristics of that particular cello.
On the piano, I noted Nikolaus Resa’s soft, gentle touch, the full, round sound. The articulation occasionally sounded a bit heavy—Bösendorfer grands are not known for particularly light-weight mechanics (unless a technician does some heavy work on it). The relatively dark sound of the instrument also sometimes blurred semiquaver figures and runs, creating a somewhat “cloudy” soundscape. At times, I was longing for the clearer, lighter sound of a mid-19th century piano! Certainly, Schumann’s piano part is technically demanding—an instrument with lighter mechanics would have helped here.
I particularly liked the beautiful, chorale-like, solemn melody which the cello played sul ponticello: Katarzyna Polonek almost made her instrument sound like a harmonica—eerie, almost! The same chorale returns a bit later, as a duet between violin and cello, playing partly in imitation, sometimes contrariwise. A few bars from the ending, Schumann inserted a 4-bar Etwas langsamer (somewhat slower) segment where the chorale returns, this time on the piano—a reminiscence. — ★★★
II. Lebhaft, doch nicht zu rasch — Trio
With its lighter articulation in the punctuated “rider” motif, this movement offered more clarity and transparency, also on the piano. Also, the coordination between the string instruments, the playing in general was very good. The artists did not overload the movement with emotions, but kept it atmospheric. The Trio kept the moderato tempo, the atmosphere remained lyrical, maybe a tad moody. — ★★★½
III. Langsam, mit inniger Empfindung
Not unexpectedly, the violinist translated innige Empfindung (intimate sentiment) into “strong vibrato“. It wasn’t nervous in any way, but its amplitude rather strong, where it started to affect the intonation. I liked Katarzyna Polonek’s cello better in that respect: she made her instrument sing very with lots of expression. Also, the warm, matching sound of the two string instruments suited this movement really well! Strangely, though, I felt that the sound of the two string instruments—albeit matching in their characteristics—didn’t mix very well in this setting. Was this maybe just a question of the distance between the two, in relation to the dimensions of the venue? — ★★★
IV. Mit Feuer
A super movement, a true masterwork! And genuine Schumann theme, indeed! Coordination and balance were excellent. Just sometimes, the pianist seemed to push the tempo slightly—at least, I occasionally felt “pushed”. Also, in this movement, the cello appeared to be at a slight disadvantage, acoustically. I think the cellist could have been slightly more articulate. Or, perhaps, an instrument with more projection, a brighter sound might have been required with the sound of the Bösendorfer grand? — ★★★½
Overall Rating: ★★★
Weinberg: Piano Trio in A minor, op.24 (1945)
Mieczysław Weinberg (1919 – 1996) was a Russian composer with Polish-Jewish origin. Weinberg lost most of his family in the Holocaust. He lived in the Soviet Union / Russia since 1939. Weinberg was evacuated to Tashkent at the outbreak of WWII. There, he met Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) who became his close friend. 1943, Shostakovich urged him to return to Moscow, where in 1945 Weinberg composed the Piano Trio in A minor, op.24, his only contribution to this genre. He was much more prolific in other genres, e.g., with 22 symphonies and 17 string quartets. The Piano Trio op.24 features four movements:
- Prelude and Aria: Larghetto
- Toccata: Allegro
- Poem: Moderato
- Finale: Allegro moderato
I. Prelude and Aria: Larghetto
A “grand opening” with loud fanfares on the string instruments, below which the piano starts with a beautiful, harmonious, chorale-like theme, all in octave parallels. Then, the roles are inverted, the rhapsodic theme now in the strings, evolving into romantic polyphony. The music is overflowing with emphasis, and harmonically, it often alternates between tonal divergence and convergence.
The Aria is much more lyrical, starting with a beautiful violin cantilena, later joined by the cello, then with scarce accompaniment by the piano. The theme uses wide-spanning intervals, but forms a jubilant melody. Unexpectedly, the short movement ends in silence, in gradually diluted pizzicato and staccato on the piano. — ★★★★
II. Toccata: Allegro
In typical “modern Toccata fashion”, the second movement begins with a very accentuated, jazzy theme on the piano, full of drive. The string instrument join in, in fugato manner: baroque textures in post-romantic disguise. The piano continues with its heavily accentuated, also syncopated line, relentlessly driving the music forward—all strongly rhythmic, enthralling! — ★★★½
III. Poem: Moderato
The beginning feels like an extensive recitative, slowly evolving into a wide-spanning (Jewish-inspired) melody. A solemn chorale follows, pizzicato on the violin, then a long, definitely Jewish melody on the cello: beautiful! The violin joins in, the piano starts accompanying. Gradually, the soundscape spreads out, turns more and more intense, expressive, dense, engaged polyphony. The movement culminated in a fanfare climax, like trumpet signals, then relaxing in a tremolo, decrescendo, retracting into the solemn chorale. The violin returns with the Jewish melody line, with ppp accompaniment, scarce chords on the piano—pppp—silence… impressive, intense music! — ★★★½
IV. Finale: Allegro moderato
After an introductory, simple, even innocent melody on the piano, the violin joins in with an agitated, excited motif. The excitement infects the piano, while the violin now sings a folk tune. The cello takes that over: another beautiful cantilena. The agitated theme returns, now in fugue-like polyphony. Gradually, the piano, then also the other instruments turn more and more agitated, accentuated—here, the music strongly reminds of Shostakovich’s! The heat turns up, the piano part now is highly virtuosic, the music a whirlwind of a folk dance, very lively, and again with influences from Jewish music.
Around the culmination point, Weinberg’s textures are polytonal, then returns to harmonious tonality, beautiful cantilenas. The return of the chorale theme leads into a short, somewhat sad, gentle, but slightly painful climax. That is just a transition, though, before the movement ends in harmony, fading into the distance, into transfiguration. Beautiful, very moving music, indeed! — ★★★½
Overall Rating: ★★★½
Encore — Dvořák: Piano Trio No.4 E minor, op.90, B.166, “Dumky“
The ensemble selected an encore from their most recent recording (2016), turning to Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904): from the Piano Trio No.4 E minor, op.90, B.166, “Dumky”, we heard the third movement, with the annotation “Andante — Vivace non troppo — Andante — Allegretto“. Krzysztof Polonek’s announcement made it sound as if this was to comfort people after difficult or dissonant music—as if there was any need for this! Of course, we enjoyed the encore nevertheless!
Beautiful, heavenly serene, heartfelt playing! Even though the strings play with mutes, the artists produced a warm, intense climax. Their interpretation was very atmospheric, often transfigured. And here, the vibrato was certainly fitting the music.
In the context of the entire trio, that performance might have been a little too fast, almost lively at times—but here, as an encore, it was a perfect match: thanks a lot!
The artists commented on the chosen sequence of works (first Rihm, then Schumann): they meant “perhaps to increase the listening pleasure” gradually, over the coarse of the program. “Tough stuff first, then the delight”, in a way. That move is somewhat understandable. True, we were in the country side, so major parts of the audience are probably not familiar with contemporary music. Hence, the chosen sequence appears to make things “easier” for less experienced users.
However, I think that this was doing Rihm’s composition (and the listeners, ultimately) a disservice. Starting with Schumann would have offered an easy entry into the program. True, Rihm’s composition comes with its share of dissonances—but, overall, I think that this piece is not at all that unfriendly. Plus, more importantly, having heard the Schumann trio beforehand would have made it much easier for listeners to recognize the cross-relations, and that again would have made Rihm’s music both more interesting and more accessible.