Orion String Trio
Mozart / Schnittke / Beethoven
Zimmermannhaus, Brugg, 2019-03-02
Ab Noten oder auswendig? — Kurze Zusammenfassung
Der Einstieg mit Mozart war nicht sehr glücklich gewählt. Es zeigte sich rasch, welche Anforderungen in Intonation und Artikulation das Divertimento an die Ausführenden stellt. Zumal in einem Saal, der alles offenbarte, aber wenig akustische Unterstützung bot. Zudem mischte sich der Klang der Violine nicht optimal mit den übrigen beiden Instrumenten.
Mit Schnittkes Streichtrio, basierend auf “Happy Birthday”, änderte sich das Bild. Plötzlich stimmte alles: “echter” Trio-Klang, gemeinsame Sprache, musikalisch und technisch exzellent!
Demonstrativ stellten die Musiker nach der Pause die Notenständer zur Seite und gruppierten sich für Beethoven etwas offener, etwas mehr dem Publikum zugewandt. Und wirklich: ohne die Notenständer-Barriere musizierten die drei Künstler freier, gelöster, wie aus einem Guss. Ein wahrer Genuss!
For me, this was the second concert in 2019 in the Zimmermannhaus in Brugg: “Chamber Music V”. For a description of the venue see my earlier reports from concerts / recitals in this location. Among the 6 concerts that I attended in this venue so far, this was the second one where the piano was not involved: a concert devoted to string trios. The other concerts included one piano recital, and evenings for cello & piano, piano trio, string quartet, and piano quintet. The cosy size of this venue in the top floor, under the roof of the building, should offer the ideal acoustics for a small, pure-strings chamber music formation—excellent perspectives for the concert!
The artists of the evening were the Orion String Trio, an ensemble consisting of three artists with three different nationalities:
- Soyoung Yoon, violin (*1984, South Korea, see also Wikipedia)
- Veit Hertenstein, viola (*1985, Augsburg, Germany, see also Deutsche Stiftung Musikleben)
- Benjamin Gregor-Smith, cello (*1987, Manchester, U.K.)
The three musicians founded the ensemble in Basel, seven years ago, 2012, after completing their musical education. At around the same time, the artists also became permanent members of the Basel Symphony Orchestra: Soyoung Yoon as first concertmaster, Veit Hertenstein as principal violist, and Benjamin Gregor-Smith as assistant solo cellist. 2016, the ensemble won the first prize and the audience award at the chamber music competition of Migros Stiftung Kulturprozent in Zurich, which boosted their career as chamber music formation. They have since appeared in concert in Switzerland, Germany, U.K., as well as in South Korea.
Key mentors of the ensemble include Harald Schoneweg (violin, Cologne, member of the Cherubini Quartet), Bernard Gregor-Smith (cello, member of the Lindsay Sting Quartet), and the cellist and composer Thomas Demenga (*1954).
The published program included three works in the following order:
- Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827): String Trio in C minor, op.9/3
- Alfred Schnittke (1934 – 1998): String Trio (1985)
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791): Divertimento in E♭ major, K.563
However, as Veit Hertenstein explained prior to starting, the concert actually featured that sequence upside down:
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791): Divertimento in E♭ major, K.563
- Alfred Schnittke (1934 – 1998): String Trio (1985)
- Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827): String Trio in C minor, op.9/3
For the listener, starting with the earliest composition seemed to make sense. However, I’ll return to the program sequence in the comments below.
The event was sold very well, though not over-sold as last time. As in most previous concerts in that venue, my wife and I had seats in the last row. Acoustically, these seats are as good as any in this venue. In addition, these allowed me to take photos without disrupting members of the audience.
All photos below are by the author, all rights reserved. I apologize for the moderate quality of the pictures—the lighting in this venue is somewhat of a challenge right at the onset (very bright background). In addition, I ended up being in a rush in adjusting the camera for the venue. Right before commencement, I realized that the LED lighting caused heavy striping, and in the few seconds left, I took the wrong countermeasures, which now led to rather grainy / noisy pictures. I’ll know better next time…
Mozart: Divertimento in E♭ major, K.563
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) composed close to 30 Divertimenti for various instrumental settings. Most of these are from the years 1771 – 1780. After this, only few works in this genre followed. The last one is the Divertimento in E♭ major, K.563 from 1788. This features 6 movements:
- Menuetto: Allegro — Trio — Menuetto da capo
- Andante — Minore — Maggiore
- Menuetto: Allegretto — Trio I — Menuetto da capo — Trio II — Menuetto da capo — Coda
As stated: the choice of starting with Mozart seemed logical. However, it instantly became clear how extremely, mercilessly exposed all three voices are in this divertimento, and hence, how very difficult in the voicing / articulation / intonation this seemingly simple music is on the musicians. This start with the first bars, which forced the musicians to “find” and establish their sound in the non-supportive environment of a very dry and analytical venue, while also connecting with the people in the audience. How much easier this would have been with a more affirmative beginning (as offered by the other pieces in the program)!
Mozart starts his divertimento with five sotto voce bars, in a retained unisono. Bar 6 continues f, but soft segments return, the light, retained atmosphere persists through most of the movement. I liked the light articulation, the transparency. The ensemble played with limited vibrato—only with the violin, the vibrato was a bit on the strong side—for my personal taste. In this music at least, I also felt that the instruments didn’t mix too well: in the ensemble, the violin (a Guadagnini!) seemed rather bright, almost thin in higher positions. Cello and viola, in contrast, sounded a tad more “earthy”, raw—these two seemed to fit to each other very well.
Sadly, the ensemble skipped the repeat of the exposition. I don’t mean to imply any deficiencies in the ensemble’s playing—it’s just that Mozart’s divertimento exposes the critical aspects mentioned, particularly in the given acoustics. That music is perhaps not ideal for this type of acoustic environment. The musicians used modern Tourte bows—maybe a more “rustic”, grippy approach with pre- or early classical bows (and gut strings?) would have been easier on the musicians and the listener? — ★★★
I should state that the three musicians operated at a technically very high level, coordination and intonation were essentially flawless, articulation and phrasing coherent and clean, the dynamic control excellent. And there were very few hints at Nachdrücken (if any, then in this movement). The playing remained delicate (especially in the violin). Vibrato was in use virtually throughout. On viola and cello it seemed less conspicuous—though this could also have been because these parts featured more “bite” in tone and articulation.
In general, the slow movement demonstrated intense and coherent ensemble playing. Were the musicians gradually gaining confidence and firmness? Here again, the repeat was not observed in the performance. — ★★★
III. Menuetto: Allegro — Trio — Menuetto da capo
The best movement so far (and in the Divertimento altogether): full of momentum, firm and grippy (yet light) articulation, coherent ensemble playing: very good Menuetto character. This also applied to the Trio with its subtle agogics and the detailed articulation, maintaining coherence among all three voices. Here now, all repeats were observed (except for the da capo part, of course)—why not in the other movements? — ★★★½
IV. Andante — Minore — Maggiore
Mozart was merciless in this movement (a set of variations) with its frequent duets in octaves or in unison—the composer must have been aware how difficult this is on the intonation. And that it is virtually impossible for two single string instruments to sound clean while in octaves or in unison! The ensemble mastered these challenges fairly well. I would not claim that the intonation was perfect throughout—it was definitely good, but certainly, one could feel the challenge, e.g., in the minore variation.
I liked the mysterious, retained atmosphere in the minore, partly devoid of vibrato. The final maggiore segment is quite virtuosic on all three instruments. Particularly beautiful: the segment where the viola demonstrated its nice, warm sonority in a chorale-like cantilena, between rapid demisemiquaver chains in the violin and a joyful semiquaver line in the cello. — ★★★½
V. Menuetto: Allegretto — Trio I — Menuetto da capo — Trio II — Menuetto da capo — Coda
As in the third movement, in this Menuetto, the musicians observed all repeats (except for the da capo instances, of course). I liked the dance character, and the obvious folk tone in the two Trios. Entertainment music in the best sense! — ★★★
Joyful music in Rondo form, full of fun, playful, light, carefree. My only, minor quibble: occasional, inadvertent, slight accelerations in some of the semiquaver passages. — ★★★
Overall Rating: ★★★
Schnittke: String Trio (1985)
Alfred Schnittke (1934 – 1998) composed his only String Trio in 1985. The work was commissioned to celebrate the centenary of Alban Berg (1885 – 1935). The composer later arranged his work for piano trio, and Schnittke’s friend, the violinist Gidon Kremer (*1947) transcribed it for string orchestra. 1985 marked the end of Schnittke’s busiest, most productive period, which had started 1978. The work has just two movements:
I’m quoting from the above reference:
Schnittke’s String Trio was premiered on 2 June, 1985 at the Moscow Conservatory. The musicians involved, Oleh Krysa, Fyodor Druzhinin and Valentin Feigin, described the work as possessing “unusual, grim, almost alarming notes—perhaps premonitions…” Only a few weeks later, on a very hot 21 July, Schnittke collapsed while socializing with friends. He was rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced clinically dead three times before recovering consciousness.
Explanations by the Musicians
The violist, Veit Hertenstein, gave a brief introduction into Schnittke’s composition. That was certainly a good idea, at least for people not familiar with that composer. He obviously had to point out one key element in the trio, the melody “Happy birthday to you!”. Schnittke obviously would not use that theme in “naked” and original form, but fragmented and embedded into his own, personal, musical language. As Veit Hertenstein pointed out, much of Schnittke’s music is predominantly dark (“dark gray, if not black”). The presenter meant to prepare the audience for these somber tones. Given the inner beauty in this music, however, I actually doubt that this was really necessary.
The hint about the main theme certainly was helpful—though I must confess that I enjoyed that music without even thinking about that theme. As Veit Hertenstein correctly pointed out, though: Schnittke felt that structural details are of lesser importance in his music: people should hear this as “pure mood & atmosphere”, rather than trying to gasp and identify structural details. He was so right about this!
In an instant, already the first bars made the listener forget about the soundscape in the Mozart Divertimento. Here now, “things were right”, the ensemble seemed to have converged into a single instrumental body, the language was coherent, compelling, the performance musically and technically excellent, out of one single spirit and mind:
To the listener, the “birthday melody” provides a helpful “entry point” into this music: by looking for fragments of that melody (how harmonically distorted these may have been), one tends to ignore the dissonances. All of a sudden (and quite soon), one barely recognizes dissonances as such: they lose their incisive character. Speaking for myself: I certainly found myself enjoying the beauty of the dissonant chords / intervals. I even started asking myself: what’s this comment about “dark gray, if not pitch black” atmosphere?? At least in my ears, this music sounded far too beautiful for such attributes!
I did not experience darkness in the sense of hopelessness or impending disaster, but certainly intense, beautiful cantilenas, expressing intense mourning, sadness, sorrow, grief. There were enthralling, highly expressive moments, periods full of tension, but also ethereal, even dreamy segments. Towards the end of the movement, the music also seemed to express hope and confidence. The ensemble did not (or rarely) try exacerbating the dissonances through harsh articulation. Rather, the sound remained coherent, dense and firm almost throughout: a touching, intense experience that made one forget about the fragility of the sound in Mozarts Divertimento.
A beginning full of flautanto and flageolet tones, often whispered, enchanting soundscapes with sul tasto playing, down to pppp and beyond. This alternated with periods of expressive, dense sounds. An excellent performance with intense, attentive and careful playing, clean intonation—and clean dissonances. There were also segments that reminded of children’s songs (reminiscences of childhood?), and in flageolets, the cello reminded of a distant Ranz des Vaches.
Sure, there are moments of pain, up to the point which people saw as premonition of a heart failure. However, even more so than in the first movement, there were periods filled with music of utter beauty and intensity, and at the climax, the music is rhapsodic, the performance emphatic, and highly expressive—before in the end, in the finest pianissimo, it seemed to transcend into the heights of a world beyond.
In reference to the somber, menacing atmosphere that Veit Hertenstein had referred to, I would have to state that this was far too beautiful. I believe he was a bit too anxious about the audience’s reaction! Should the music be more menacing, more painful? I don’t think so! I believe artists would do the music a disservice if they merely tried following the reputation (?) of Schnittke’s music as being dissonant, if not provocative. If anything, then this performance convincingly showed how beautiful, touching, expressive and intense this music is!
Beethoven: String Trio in C minor, op.9/3
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) produced five compositions for string trio (violin, viola, cello):
- String Trio in E♭ major, op.3 from 1797, while Beethoven still lived in Bonn (6 movements)
- Serenade in D major for Violin, Viola and Cello, op.8, written 1796 – 1797, i.e., even prior to op.3 (6 movements)
- 3 String Trios, op.9, each in four movements. These were also composed in Bonn, 1797 – 1798, but published in Vienna, 1799:
- G major, op.9/1
- D major, op.9/2
- C minor, op.9/3
The last one, String Trio in C minor, op.9/3, comes with the following four movements:
- Allegro con spirito
- Adagio con espressione
- Scherzo – Allegro molto e vivace
- Finale – Presto
When publishing the Trios op.9 in 1799, the composer regarded these his best works so far. Note that Beethoven’s first quartets (the Six String Quartets, op.18) followed only a year later, 1800.
A little surprise for starting: the Orion String Trio performed Beethoven’s op.9/3 by heart, demonstratively removing the music stands. “What’s the benefit of this extra challenge?” one might ask. In the case of singers who are by definition “speaking” to the audience, sheet music can indeed form a barrier towards the audience, and hence often preclude direct contacts with the audience. Here, however, eye contacts with the audience are secondary. On the other hand, chamber music lives from mutual contacts between the musicians, and so, playing by heart has its definitive benefits. Plus, as soloists can easily tell, it is a tremendous help in focusing on coordination, musical structure and expression.
If this needed any proof, the performance provided more than sufficient evidence: it seemed as if (in comparison to Mozart’s Divertimento) the removal of the “sheet music barriers” also enabled a firmer, more coherent sound & performance, freer and more expressive playing. Interestingly, though, even now, the artists did not engage in intense, let alone permanent eye contacts, but continued to interact through peripheral vision. So, the removal of the music stands primarily seemed to serve as a “demonstrative action”, rather than being a practical necessity.
I. Allegro con spirito
What a revelation after the Mozart Divertimento! A very fluent, forward-leaning tempo (even accelerating in the coda), light articulation, emotional playing. The vibrato was certainly strong enough in cantilenas, but there were also many passages without any vibrato. A performance full of drive and momentum, with a definitive “pull forward”—unfortunately without any repeats. — ★★★★
II. Adagio con espressione
An intense performance, though without excessive legato of pressure on the strings, with little or not tendency towards Nachdrücken. My main quibble: the “espressione” (expectedly) translated to occasional excesses in vibrato, especially with the violin. — ★★★½
III. Scherzo – Allegro molto e vivace
A rhythmically demanding movement, challenging in the coordination. This definitely profited from playing by heart: one could sense the extra freedom in the performance, the agogics. The coordination was excellent, the performance full of momentum. There were moments towards the end, where the tempo felt a bit pushed.
In the central C major part, the artists switched to a slightly slower, more relaxed pace, allowing for more of a dance-like atmosphere. The tempo transitions felt very natural and inconspicuous. Why did the artists observe the repeats in the Scherzo, but not in the sonata form of the opening movement? — ★★★½
IV. Finale – Presto
Agile, attentive playing, full of tension, even when the artists occasionally relaxed the pace a bit. Very expressive, enthralling, lively in tempo and agogics. A very good performance.
It’s also a movement in sonata form—and again, the exposition was not repeated. It seems to mention this every time. However, doing the repeats clarifies and completes the structure for the listener. On top of that, it also gives the individual movement its proper weight, i.e., it also “fixes” the overall proportions of the composition as a whole. — ★★★★
Overall Rating: ★★★★
Encore — von Dohnányi: Serenade for String Trio in C major, op.10 — I. Marcia: Allegro
As encore, the ensemble offered the opening movement from the Serenade for String Trio in C major, op.10 by Ernst von Dohnányi (1877 – 1960). Ernst (Ernö) von Dohnányi was a Hungarian composer, pianist and conductor. 1897, at age 20, he moved to Berlin, where he started a successful musical career. His Serenade, op.10 is from these years, composed 1902.
The ensemble selected the first movement (Marcia: Allegro) out of five total. And also this was performed by heart. As a composition, von Dohnányi’s serenade can hardly compete with Beethoven’s trio. Still, it is pleasant, romantic / late romantic music with rhythmic flair and maybe distant influences from Hungarian folk music.
As stated, from a listener’s point-of-view, the chosen, final program sequence (as presented) made sense, musically. Yet, I doubt that this was the best choice to start the concert with the Mozart Divertimento—at least in this acoustically challenging environment. As a musician in the audience pointed out to me, starting with Beethoven would have been far easier on the musicians. But this would hardly negate the challenges of the Divertimento, rather: doing the latter at the end would have left a less favorable overall impression. How about starting with the Schnittke Trio, followed by the Divertimento, and closing with Beethoven?