Bohren / Uszynski / Demenga
Schubert / Mozart

Stadtkirche, Brugg, 2019-07-21

4-star rating

2019-07-28 — Original posting



Introduction

Over the recent years, I have reviewed several concerts with the Swiss violinist Sebastian Bohren (*1987, see also Wikipedia).. Examples are a duo recital in Zurich (2015-10-13), another duo recital in Lucerne (2018-09-13), and a recent solo recital in Windisch (2019-04-21). Then, of course, Sebastian Bohren devotes a major portion of his activities to the Stradivari Quartett (see also Wikipedia), where he is the second violinist. In that function, I have heard him in concert about a year ago, on 2018-09-09 in Zurich.

Sebastian Bohren runs his own concert series in Brugg, under the label Stretta Concerts Brugg, covering both orchestral, as well as chamber music. The artist sent me a leaflet for one of these concerts. This was a string trio recital, and the last concert in the 2018/2019 season:

Venue

The venue for this concert, as well as for most other events in the Stretta Concerts Brugg series, was the Stadtkirche Brugg. The origins of this building date back to the 13th century, the foundation of bell tower was parts of the city fortification. The church started as a small Roman-style chapel. This was subsequently expanded, with the nave reaching its current size in the 14th century, still Roman style. Later expansions included the addition of a Gothic choir, as well as lateral chapels. In the 15th century, the church as largely remodeled, the lateral chapels reworked into lateral naves. The state of the building led to a reconstruction between 1734 and 1740, when the church received its current form. Only few parts, such as the beautiful rostrum, persisted from the predecessor churches.

Three Artists Forming a String Trio

There is a huge repertoire for piano trio (piano, violin, cello). However, string trios (violin, viola, cello) are a rare genre as compositions. So, string trio recitals are scarce events. And, of course, there are only very few standing string trio ensembles. The one example that comes to mind is the Trio Italiano d’Archi, active from 1957, in the second half of the last century. More recently, I witnessed a performance by the Trio Zimmermann, in a concert on 2016-12-13. I should also mention the Orion String Trio, which I heard in concert on 2019-03-02. This latter performance was also in Brugg, by coincidence.

“Spontaneous Formations”

Often, string trio ensembles form “spontaneously”, i.e., for a specific performance, or a series of performances. This was the case here where the following three artists teamed up for a string trio recital:

Sebastian Bohren and Lech Antonio Uszynski know each other well. They are both members of the Stradivari Quartett. In his Stretta Concerts Brugg Series, Sebastian Bohren is also inviting prominent Swiss artists, be it as soloists, or as members of chamber music formations. Among the Swiss cellists, the name of Thomas Demenga is among the first that come to mind. He is an achieved artist (cellist and composer) with an excellent reputation. I have heard him in concert once before in Zurich, on 2015-11-21, as member of the Camerata Zürich. Thbomas Demenga also is the artistic director for this ensemble

The Instruments

As members of the Stradivari Quartett, both Sebastian Bohren and Lech Antonio Uszynski used to play on instruments by Antonio Stradivari. However, these instruments were temporary loans. They moved on to other artists since. The current instruments, also in use for this concert, were

  • The 1761 violin “Ex-Wannamaker Hart” by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1711 – 1786). This instrument was formerly owned and played by the late Swiss violinist Thomas Füri (1947 – 2017).
  • Lech Antonio Uszynski plays a 1690 viola from the workshop of Hendrick Willems (Ghent, ca. 1630 – 1700)
  • Thomas Demenga performs on an 18th century cello from the school of Carlo Giuseppe Testore (1665 – 1738, Milan)

Program

As mentioned, the string trio repertoire is very limited. In the classic period, only very few works in this genre exist:

  • Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) composed a large number of trios. However, all but one of his string trios are for two violins and cello.
  • Mozart wrote the Divertimento for String Trio in E♭ major, K.563. The only other work is a single movement, and even that remained a fragment (exposition only).
  • In his youth, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) wrote five compositions for string trio: the Trio in E♭ major, op.3, the Serenade in D major, op.8, and the three Trios op.9 (G major, op.9/1; D major, op.9/2; F major, op.9/3).
  • Schubert wrote his String Trio in B♭ major, D.581, one movement and a fragment of a trio in B♭ major, D.471, plus a fragment of yet another movement in B♭ major (D.111A)

Within the Vienna Classic period (if not in all of recent music history), people generally regard Mozart’s Divertimento the crown of the genre. This formed the main part of this concert’s program. The concert started with the one complete movement from Schubert’s Trio D.471:

Setting, etc.

Sebastian Bohren’s concerts are very popular. This is the region in which he is rooted. The church nave was full (free admission, donations). My wife and I managed to get seats on the balcony (which was not officially open for audience). From there I could take photos without disrupting others.


Schubert: String Trio in B♭ major, D.471

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The String Trio in B♭ major, D.471 by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) only exists as a fragment, consisting of the complete opening movement, plus a fragmentary second movement. This trio is a work from September 1816, i.e., Schubert was 19 when he wrote this. The movements:

  1. Allegro, 4/4
  2. Andante sostenuto, 3/4 (fragment only)

The short, rudimentary fragment of the Andante sostenuto movement was not part of this performance.

The Allegro movement was a kind of introduction in several ways: getting “into” the sound of the instruments, getting acquainted with the acoustics. It was my first visit to this venue (except for my participation in a high school choir performance almost 50 years ago).

The Performance

Acoustics

The church is fairly big, high, with a flat ceiling. Instantly, the reverberation was obvious and substantial: typical church acoustics. The artists, Sebastian Bohren in particular, were of course aware of and well-prepared for the reverberation: thanks to their light articulation, the melody lines remained clear, the sound sufficiently transparent.

I should point out, though, that my remarks on acoustics, balance, transparency and reverberation reflect my personal point-of-view from a position at the distance of the rear balcony. I do regard the acoustics as being very pleasant (though anything but analytic) also in the distance. However, a listener in, say, row 6 – 10 in the nave might have experienced more clarity and transparency.

One should keep in mind, though, that, as classical chamber music in general, both works in this concert were written / conceived for much smaller, more intimate venues / settings.

Sound & Balance

Much more than the Mozart trio, the Schubert movement seemed to expose a peculiarity of the acoustics: Schubert, as a Lied composer, shows a certain focus on the melody line in the top voice, and the violin part often moves into higher positions on the A and E strings. The venue seemed to give excellent support to that tonal range, and together with Sebastian Bohren’s excellent, light articulation, this ensured that the violin part remained clear, easy to follow at all times.

This contrasted with the viola and cello parts: acoustic blurring seemed to affect these much more than the violin. Particularly in this piece this led to a certain dominance of the violin, particularly on the E string. At the same time, Lech Antonio Uszynski and Thomas Demenga did get less of an opportunity to expose the “personalities” of their parts.

I don’t think there is much the artists on the lower two instruments could have done to compensate for this. It wasn’t simply a matter of playing louder (even though my first thought indeed was whether they shouldn’t play a little “more”). Also, Sebastian Bohren could not simply take back the volume without altering the character of his part. For the most part I attribute this to Schubert’s composition. Maybe the use of gut strings (possibly a lighter classical / period bow?) might have helped? I’m not complaining. I regard this an unavoidable effect of performing a (this?) Schubert string trio in this particular venue.

Interpretation

My notes begin mentioning the very light articulation (which in parts must have been in response to the reverberation), and the very limited vibrato: I was pleased with the sound instantly. The vibrato was largely inconspicuous and mainly used to give longer notes some “inner life”, allowing them to evolve. Throughout the movement, I had the impression of excellent, very harmonious ensemble playing. My only quibble is about the acoustic dominance of the violin, particularly on the E string, as mentioned above.

The tempo was fluent, absolutely natural, and a proper Allegro. The artists of course repeated the exposition: together with the classic clarity in Schubert’s writing, the listener could easily follow the sonata movement form.

I noted the careful dynamics, the very natural phrasing and musical flow. Also the playing in general was very natural: not a polished performance that tried to be artful or perfect—rather one full of inner life. The interpretation overall seemed conclusive: there was never an instance where I felt that the performance was (too) slow or (too) fast. And even though the artists remained truthful to the score, the interpretation never sounded didactic or demonstrative. An excellent introduction for the concert!

Rating: ★★★½


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Mozart: Divertimento for String Trio in E♭ major, K.563

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) created his Divertimento for String Trio in E♭ major, K.563, in 1788. This is the year in which he also completed his last three symphonies, and his Piano Concerto No.26 in D major, K.537 (a.k.a. “Coronation Concerto”). These works show the composer at the height of his abilities and creative power. It is for good reason that people regard the Trio K.563 the crown of the genre, and a true masterwork in Mozart’s oeuvre.

The one reference to the genre of Divertimento is in the structure of six movements, which Mozart also used in earlier divertimenti:

  1. Allegro (4/4)
  2. Adagio (3/4)
  3. Menuetto: Allegretto (3/4) – Trio (3/4)
  4. Andante (theme and 7 variations, 2/4)
  5. Menuetto: Allegretto – Trio I – Trio II (3/4)
  6. Allegro (6/8)

While retaining the six-movement structure with two slow and two Menuetto movements surrounded by a pair of Allegros, the work bears little resemblance to a typical Divertimento. Yes, the Menuets keep their dance character, but musically, the Trio has vastly more “substance” than a typical divertissement. It really is on a par with Mozart’s other works from that period.

The Performance

Almost instantly I realized that the acoustic balance seemed substantially better here, compared to the Schubert movement. Sure, the acoustics did seem to give the violin a “preferential treatment”. Or, was this rather the superb projection of Sebastian Bohren’s Guadagnini? Still, Mozart’s score is instrumentally more balanced, giving also Lech Antonio Uszynski and Thomas Demenga a change to expose the qualities of their instruments: the slightly nasal, but clear sound of Lech Antonio Uszynski’s remarkably large viola, the equally well-projecting and clear sonority of Thomas Demenga’s cello.

The three instruments are diverse enough not to merge into a single, homogeneous ensemble sound. Rather, their specific characteristics were complementing each other almost ideally, and the three musicians appeared to represent musically equivalent voices. Their individuality helped in keeping the three voices identifiable throughout the concert. I only found that in some of the soft segments, the acoustics occasionally seemed to put secondary voices at a slight disadvantage. But apart from that, the three musicians formed a truly excellent partnership: a musically very balanced performance, in which none of the artists ever inappropriately tried “playing himself into the foreground”.

I. Allegro

The initial, descending sotto voce chord appears to announce a calm Adagio introduction in alla breve notation. However, that impression only lasted for the first five bars. Then, all of a sudden, one realized the vivid tempo (4/4 time), all the joy and life in the semiquaver runs, the clear, light articulation. Brilliant music, in a delightful interpretation! I really liked how every phrase was filled with inner life, and how the phrases merged into the overall flow forming a harmonious arch all across the first part, up to the double bar.

The exposition of course appeared twice. That’s so logical, so sensible, as it made the development part stand out even more, with its harmonic surprises that must have sounded almost revolutionary at the time of the composition. Also, with the repeated first part, every listener could effortlessly recognize the recap segment: structural clarity at its best!

The vibrato remained largely inconspicuous, never intrusive or affecting the intonation. And it never turned into a feature of its own, distracting from the musical substance: in fact, I soon forgot to pay attention to the vibrato aspect. All the more, I enjoyed the lively interaction between the three artists: an inspiring discourse between high-spirited minds!
★★★★½

II. Adagio

The initial, gently ascending line in the cello was indicative of the performance in this movement: gentle, solemn in articulation and phrasing. As calm as the music: the swaying of the vibrato—a little more prominent here, but not really affecting the flawless intonation. The latter is particularly challenging in the development part, with some highly exposed solo motifs.

Actually, the movement altogether is not only highly challenging, but also a true masterwork. It certainly appeared like that in this interpretation, where careful control and shaping of phrasing and dynamics led to a harmonious, coherent and compelling performance. It was most impressive to observe how the musicians were able to keep the calm throughout. Yet, they managed to maintain the tension, the intensity throughout the movement: an excellent and touching performance, indeed!
★★★★½

III. Menuetto: AllegrettoTrio

After the Adagio, the Menuetto felt much more handsome, but still very playful, dancing (in the sense of a peasant dance, perhaps). The performance was (deliberately) not polished to perfection. Rather, it was left slightly “raw” in the articulation, but appeared vivid, lively in dynamics and accents.
★★★★

IV. Andante (Theme and 7 Variations)

The theme in this variation movement seems almost too trivial (if not uninteresting). However, what a subtle, multi-faceted masterwork Mozart created on the basis of this simple material! The movement culminates in the final maggiore variation, with its virtuosic demisemiquaver runs on the violin, above semiquaver staccato accompaniment on the cello, and the melody slowed down to a cantus firmus on the viola in-between. In the coda / ending, the virtuosic demisemiquavers first move into the viola part, finally into the cello. Another, brilliant masterwork, in a delightful interpretation!
★★★★

V. Menuetto: Allegretto – Trio I – MenuettoTrio IIMenuetto

As in the first Menuetto, Mozart gave this movement a somewhat heavy character, with the frequent sf on the first beat. However, the lightweight responses in the violin offer contrast and balance. In the first Trio—a peasant dance of sorts—the viola takes a prominent role, carrying the melody line. In the second part, the violin enters a dialog with the viola. And here, it was fascinating to observe how well the two instruments are matching in their sound characteristics.

For the second instance of the Menuetto, Mozart wrote “Menuetto da capo, le repliche piano” —the repeats to be played p. The artists omitted these repeats: the only notable omission in this concert.

The second Trio (as a composition) comes closest to a traditional Menuetto—a gallant, light and playful dance. The final instance of the Menuetto leads into a short Coda (Menuetto da capo, senza replica e poi la Coda). A classic masterpiece—as if Mozart once more wanted to exemplify what a Menuetto can and should be!
★★★★

VI. Allegro

The final movement, a Rondo, turns into a virtuosic last dance. Viola and cello mostly keep the role of accompaniment. Here, Mozart gives the violin the role of a virtuosic primadonna. Only momentarily, the viola takes over the fast semiquaver line. It should be said, though, that also the accompanying voices are not without challenges. The performance was exemplary in its freshness, the alertness, and in the momentum that carried the listener through the last bars!
★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★


Conclusions

I mentioned an earlier string trio concert a few months ago, also in Brugg, on 2019-03-02. There, the artists opened their recital with Mozart’s Divertimento, K.563. However, they were clearly less successful in the Divertimento than the artists in this concert. Thanks for doing justice to Mozart’s masterwork!



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2 thoughts on “Bohren / Uszynski / Demenga — Brugg, 2019-07-21”

  1. Dear Rolf,

    Many Thanks For This Review.

    I Love String Trios a Lot.

    My Favourite String Trios are those Composed by Beethoven and Haydn.

    Anne Sophie Mutter performs Beethoven The String Trios The Best.

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