Oberon Trio
Haydn / Copland / Hosokawa / Schumann

Zimmermannhaus, Brugg, 2019-11-02

4-star rating

2019-11-11 — Original posting

Oberon Trio (© Neda Navaee)
Oberon Trio (© Neda Navaee)
Klassik und Romantik als Rahmen für Copland und Hosokawa — Zusammenfassung

Das Oberon Trio (Henja Semmler, Violine; Antoaneta Emanuilova, Cello; Jonathan Aner, Klavier) präsentierte ein weitgespanntes Programm von Joseph Haydn bis Toshio Hosokawa. Haydns Klaviertrio Nr.37 in d-moll ist unter den Klaviertrios des Komponisten eines der bekanntesten. Trotz modernem Instrumentarium kann man die Aufführung durch das Oberon Trio historisch informiert nennen—namentlich in der Artikulation und dem restriktiven Gebrauch des Vibrato. Das größte Defizit ist nicht dem Pianisten zuzuschreiben, sondern dem Bösendorfer-Flügel, welcher weder im Reichtum der Klangfarben, noch in der Agilität seiner Mechanik mit einem historischen Fortepiano konkurrieren kann.

Beim abschließenden Trio Nr.2 in F-dur von Schumann (op.80) war der Flügel sicher weit näher an der historischen Realität—hier war es eher die trockene Akustik des Kleinen Konzertsaals im Zimmermannhaus Brugg, die dem Publikum das Eintauchen in die Emotionalität von Schumanns Musik erschwerte.


Die beiden Höhepunkte des Abends standen im Zentrum des Programms: vor der Pause “Vitebsk”, eine “Studie über ein jüdisches Thema” von u. Ein Stück mit reibenden, mikrotonalen Dissonanzen, vor allem in der Einleitung. Erst mit dem Eintreten des jüdischen Themas beruhigt sich die Harmonik allmählich, während zeitweilig Jazz-artige Rhythmik die Musik auflockert, bevor sie zu einem ruhigen, harmonischen Ende findet. Mir schien dies Musik sie sich erst im Nachhinein wirklich erschließt, und die ich deshalb gerne zweimal gehört hätte!

Toshio Hosokawa entwickelt sein Klaviertrio (2013 / 2017) aus einem einzigen Ton, später aus Tritonus-Intervallen auf, die im Verlauf eine ungeahnte Farbenpracht und -vielfalt entwickeln. Interessanterweise verlor sich selbst beim Tritonus, dem dissonantesten Intervall, das Gefühl von Missklang: während der Aufführung notierte ich mir “dissonante Harmonie” und “Harmonie des Tritonus”! Auch dies ein Werk, das man eigentlich mindestens zweimal hintereinander hören sollte.

Das ganze Konzertprogramm sollte im Januar mit diesen Interpreten auf CD verfügbar sein.

Table of Contents

Zimmermannhaus Brugg, 2019-11-02: Stage and part of current art exhibition (© Rolf Kyburz)
Zimmermannhaus Brugg, 2019-11-02: Stage and part of current art exhibition (© Rolf Kyburz)


Back in the Zimmermannhaus in Brugg, after the summer / autumn break—for another piano trio recital (the last one that I attended was on 2019-05-03). As always, the concert venue was also holding for an arts exhibition—paintings and sculptural works by the Swiss artists Marion Ritzmann and by Oliver Krähenbühl (*1963 in Basel). The walls of the concert venue were decorated with paintings by Oliver Krähenbühl (two can be seen in the rear of the podium). However, the majority of the artworks (especially sculptures) were located in the floor below. With these paintings, the concerts in this venue always have a special flair!

This was my eighth visit to a concert in this venue—and the site and its atmosphere still fascinate me. But in the spirit of what I stated in a recent posting, let me turn to the concert directly. For additional information on the venue, as well as on previous concerts that I attended see my earlier blog posts.


The artists in this concert were the Oberon Trio, which was founded in 2006. The ensemble resides in Berlin and consists of the following artists:

Jonathan Aner was performing on the venue’s mid-size Bösendorfer Model 225 grand piano. The lid was fully open.


The program opened with a classic trio by the inventor of the genre of piano trios, Joseph Haydn, and it closed with a work from the romantic period. These compositions surrounded “Vitebsk” by Aaron Copland, and a contemporary work by Toshio Hosokawa:

Between the pieces, the artists were giving explanations on the works played—much appreciated, especially with the two compositions in the center!

Setting, etc.

The concert in this 100-seat venue sold very well. The organizers were very kind by offering me a seat in the last row, where I could take photos without disturbing others. Note that the LED lighting in this room mandates long exposure times, which makes it tricky to obtain sharp pictures, even with a tripod: most shots have some motion blurring (I usually just take a huge number of pictures, hoping for some usable results).

Concert & Review

Haydn: Piano Trio No.37 in D minor, Hob.XV:23

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) composed his Piano Trio No.37 in D minor, Hob.XV:23 in 1792. There are three movements:

  1. Andante molto
  2. Adagio ma non troppo
  3. Finale: Vivace

The Performance

I. Andante molto

The movement is a set of “mixed” variations, in which the opening D minor segment (AABB) is varied two times, each of these instances is followed by a D major segment (also CCDD) and its own two variations. The D minor opening already gave a clear indication of the ensemble’s playing: an unpretentious tone on the string instruments, the vibrato inconspicuous at most (often none at all), the articulation light. The gentle first part gave way to the more resolute D major theme. I liked the warm string sound, the lively, natural flow, the excellent transparency and coordination—and even more so the excellent balance, despite the piano’s open lid, which speaks for the pianist’s excellent dynamic control.

Compared to performances a few decades ago, I would definitely call this performance historically informed; the one hiccup with this term, though, was of course the modern grand, with the relatively dark (yet singing) sound quality (so typical for a Bösendorfer). Yes, the balance still was excellent, though at Haydn’s time, the sound was definitely worlds from what we heard. As long as it’s played with little pedaling (as here) and without exploiting the full sound potential, however, Haydn’s writing readily adjusts to this environment.

Thinking of a historic fortepiano, though, it is obvious that a modern grand (especially a Bösendorfer with its relatively heavy mechanics and fairly uniform, darkish sound) can hardly compete with the agility and flexibility of a fortepiano, let alone its richness of colors. However, one can hardly blame the artists for not carrying along a fragile historic instrument. And, after all, also the string instruments were modern, as were the Tourte bows.

II. Adagio ma non troppo

A calm, idyllic movement in a natural, very harmonious performance. Jonathan Aner kept the piano sound modest and (relatively) light, again with minimal use of the sustain pedal. I enjoyed the warm sound of Henja Semmler’s violin, its dark tone on the low strings (an excellent fit to the Bösenbdorfer!), which I already noted in the first movement. There were passages where the low violin register seemed to assume the singing / “vocal” sound qualities of a viola! I felt this even more in the last movement—

III. Finale: Vivace

A vivid performance, with lively accents and syncopes, and excellent in the coordination, virtuosic especially in the piano part, rich in colors—within the boundaries of modern instrumentation, of course. Expectedly, this was the movement where I missed the lightness of a fortepiano the most. Nevertheless, I experienced a most enjoyable and harmonious performance. Too bad that Haydn didn’t give the cello a more autonomous role—but the idea of a basso continuo must still have been very close back in 1792.

Overall Rating: ★★★★

As part of her introduction (excellent in language and content!), Henja Semmler put the entire program under the title “Duality“, which applies to all four of the works, as the violinist pointed out. In Haydn’s first movement, it was obvious in the alternating D minor / D major segments, their interaction and opposition, the associated changes in color and atmosphere. In the second movement, she found duality in the opposition / interaction between string and keyboard instruments. The final movement had duality in the interplay between apparent 6/8 motion and the 3/4 meter which leaves the artist and the listener uncertain about the actual rhythmic base—especially with the many syncopes (typical Haydn jokes!).

Copland: “Vitebsk”, Study on a Jewish Theme for violin, violoncello, and piano (1929)

Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990) composed his “Vitebsk”, a Study on a Jewish Theme for violin, violoncello, and piano in 1929. I’m not trying to reproduce even parts of Henja Semmler‘s introduction here—it referred to an English play The Dybbuk: Between Two Worlds that the composer saw in his youth—suffice to say that Vitebsk is a city in Belarus—and also the birthplace of Marc Chagall (1887 – 1985).

The piece plays with the contrast, the interplay between Jazz elements and Klezmer music: another type of duality. Henja Semmler also referred to duality when describing the beginning of the composition, where the piano is playing major and minor chords simultaneously, or the quarter-tones in the string instruments, i.e., which are “neither one nor the other” note in the occidental chromatic scale.

The Performance

Copland must have intended the shock effect that the beginning of his piece creates: the dissonant chords / clusters on the piano aren’t so special these days, but the quartet-tone motifs in the string instruments sounded harsh, crude, even grindingly off—especially as the artists began each note without any vibrato at all. Vibrato might have attenuated the dissonances, the “off feeling”—but that of course was exactly not Copland’s intent!

That said: I would claim that even with the vibrato-less clarity, no-one in the audience was able to state whether the quarter-tone notes were actually spot-on or not. I suspect it doesn’t matter so much, as long as the artists don’t fall back onto the chromatic scale—which they sure didn’t here. In any case, I’m sure these “odd / in-between pitches” are very hard to perform, as the Western ear doesn’t find an interval (in relation to the other voices) to “hold on to”.

Copland then takes the initial motif in the string instruments, uses it both upright and inverted, in symmetric counter-movements, repeatedly, at varying pace, now in a chromatic scale. Even though it still is dissonant, after the “obstructive” introduction, it felt much more harmonious. The harmony increases, as violin and cello start to quote the motif in parallel, finally reaching “harmony” in unison. A brilliant idea!

Jewish Theme

The Jewish theme is introduced by the cello’s warm, harmonious singing, now with vibrato. The piano starts accompanying with soft, somber chords, and the violin adds reminiscences of the beginning, without vibrato. The cello keeps singing its melancholic, endless tune (later joined by the violin), accompanied by swift interjections by the piano.

The piece then evolves into playful, jolly dancing, a canon, a funny hide-and-seek play between the artists, often jazzy, very virtuosic on the piano—all excellent in the coordination, in the rhythmic transitions. The piece calms down and ends with the Jewish tune, very soft, finally ppp on the cello’s C string.

I hadn’t heard the piece before—my initial reaction was that to the unprepared listener, that music is hard to convey—especially in the analytic acoustics of this small venue. Maybe performing it twice would have helped???

Rating: ★★★★

Hosokawa: Piano Trio (2013 / 2017)

After the break, the concert featured a truly contemporary piece by Toshio Hosokawa (*1955). He wrote his Piano Trio in 2013, completed it in 2017. In his introduction, Jonathan Aner quoted the composer, who referred to shamanism for this trio. Thereby, the violin stands for the female principle, the cello for the male counterpart. The duet of these two voices resembles the singing of two shamans, while the piano represents nature and the cosmos, and between violin and piano there is the complementing harmony of yin and yang. So, dualism in complementary contrasts and harmony?

As Hosokawa told the artists (when they met the composer in Stuttgart while learning the trio), the Western view typically claims that music originates from the relationship, the interaction between tones. In contrast, he claims that music can also come from one single tone, with it’s different beginning and ending, and the life, the colors in the time in-between. This is exemplary in the first part of Hosokawa’s trio

Hosokawa later makes extended use of the tritonus—typically the most dissonant interval to Western ears—but also the interval that splits the octave into symmetrical, “same size” parts. Duality in dissonance and harmony (or symmetry?)?

The Performance

The music sneaks in from nothing—first on the violin (?), then joined by the cello, later also the piano. A single tone, initially flat, featureless, airy, spiritual, then growing vibrato, tremolo, halftone trills, larger trills, scratching, glissando, alternating notes—countless shades of colors, of dynamic variations. Constant intensification in waves, interplay between ethereal and earthly scratching articulation. Saltando (and col legno) playing, dissonant trembling, the strings moving in parallel, at the distance of a tritonus—yes: dissonant—yet, my notes read “dissonant harmony”, and “Harmony of the tritonus“.

A new start with a single tone in rich variations—associated with standing tones / chords / clusters on the piano. Rapid, long glissandi, divergence without tonality, occasionally converging into “conventional” chords: a best example of a “sound painting” in the proper sense of the word that I can think of. After a tremolating climax, the music gradually retracts into silence, accompanied by resonating sound clusters on the piano. This music proves that a piece does not require a recognizable time (or rhythmic / phrasing / thematic) structure to be highly interesting, full of life, full of tension!

Rating: ★★★★½

Schumann: Piano Trio No.2 in F major, op.80

Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) wrote three “regular” piano trios (op.63, op.80, op.110). The middle one, the Piano Trio No.2 in F major, op.80, was reached completion in 1847. Schumann published it in 1850. The work features four movements:

  1. Sehr lebhaft
  2. Mit innigem Ausdruck – Lebhaft
  3. In mässiger Bewegung
  4. Nicht zu rasch

The cellist, Antoaneta Emanuilova, gave the introduction to the final work in this concert. She referred to the prominent dualism in Schumann’s character and in his music. The composer himself personified the duality under the names Florestan (the extroverted, urging, also wild, eruptive part of his personality) and Eusebius (the introverted, pensive, mild / gentle part). The composer extensively referred to these in his Davidsbündlertänze, op.9. However, the alternation between these character traits is found in many of Schumann’s works, including the Trio in F major. As the artist explained, already the basic tonality points at the Florestan character, and references to the tone or the tonality E are clear references to Eusebius. I don’t try reproducing the artist’s explanations here in more detail.

The Performance

I. Sehr lebhaft

As expected, the playing here was very different from that in the Haydn trio: emote, with characterful tone, full of life. Here now, the string instruments sounded with more vibrato (especially in the Eusebius segments)—though certainly not excessive, often barely noticeable (and the intonation was not affected). The piano sonority was excellent and came to full bearing. I did have some quibbles, though—which I cannot attribute to the artist / the ensemble: I found that in the rather dry, analytic acoustics in this venue, the string instruments hardly ever mixed with the sound of the piano. Rather, they sounded like a separate entity. Sure, on the other hand, the clarity, the transparency profited from the acoustics. But as a listener, I did not really feel “wrapped” into the music. It prevented me from fully immersing into the playing.

II. Mit innigem Ausdruck – Lebhaft

Here, “intimate expression” is even in the annotation of the movement. And I found that the acoustics again precluded full immersion. Yes, there was warmth, expression, care, also intimacy in the interpretation, in the sound of the instruments. But without the support of reverberation (an “acoustic cushion”) I sensed that the string artists must have felt like playing alone. The tiniest portamento, the smallest impurities would be cruelly exposed to the audience. The occasional portamento is OK—here, however, it may have received too much attention. I missed the expression of intimacy in the sound of the ensemble, in the listener’s experience. It was the piano which largely defined the soundscape—and the acoustics serve the piano very well!

III. In mässiger Bewegung

An Interesting movement, moody in its basic character, feeling “rhythmically suspended” (i.e., vaguely defined) initially. That impression vanishes with the discourse of short motifs that momentarily light up the atmosphere. The moderate irritation from the acoustics persisted—however, we could enjoy the well-defined, characterful sound of the string instruments—never did the violin ever sound thin or papery. Jonathan Aner’s piano playing was alway very detailed, careful in articulation and dynamics. And the coda was—simply beautiful, touching!

IV. Nicht zu rasch

The very beginning was hesitating, retained. However, that only lasted two bars: as the cello set in with its staccato passage, both the dynamics, as well as the tempo rapidly grew, the music gained momentum. Though, Schumann’s score keeps swaying between Eusebius hesitations and more imperious Florestan segments. Technically, the playing was excellent throughout, as was the coordination and the balance. My main quibble here: a few bars after “K” in the violin has a couple of syncopes, tied onto the following note. Henja Semmler strangely moved the accent onto the tied note, which made this sound like Nachdrücken, or a crescendo over the tied quavers—and it lost the syncope character. Why?

Again, Jonathan Aner’s piano playing featured clear, careful and detailed articulation: the Bösendorfert definitely profited from the acoustics, exposing its excellent, warm and round sonority.

Overall Rating: ★★★½

Encore, Conclusion

An impressive performance, highly interesting particularly in the two highlights, the pieces by Copland and by Hosokawa. The artists decided not to add new music in the encore. Rather, they decided to repeat the third movement (In mässiger Bewegung) from the Schumann trio—not without pointing out that the entire program has just been recorded and will appear on CD in January 2020. I’m sure the ensemble’s Website will feature the necessary pointers, once the CD is available.

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