Mozart / Kagel / Schubert / Schönberg
Konservatorium Bern, 2018-01-22
2018-01-28 — Original posting
The Trio Gaspard emerged in 2010, with the following three musicians, all from different nationalities:
- Jonian Ilias Kadesha, violin — Greece
- Vashti Hunter, cello — U.K.
- Nicholas Rimmer, piano — Germany
Ever since its inception, the trio has been appearing on international concert stages, and they received prizes at several international competitions. At the same time each of the members pursues his/her own solo career.
The concert was held in the big hall of the Konservatorium Bern, which I had already visited in earlier concerts last year. this time, my wife and I had booked two seats on the left of the first row on the balcony. These offer an excellent view onto the stage, and they are excellent also from the point-of-view of acoustics. As the earlier instances, this concert was sold well, though not sold out. I really like the concerts in this venue. It’s less at than 15 minutes walking distance from the train station, and the walk to the venue takes visitors through the beautiful old center of the Swiss capital. This more than compensates for the unspectacular looks of the concert hall.
Mozart: Piano Trio in C major, K.548
The Trio in C major for Piano, Violin and Violoncello, K.548 is the fifth out of six piano trios that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) composed. K.548 was written 1788. It features three movement, following the traditional scheme fast-slow-fast:
- Andante cantabile
The Mozart trio had me worried—because of the Steinway D-274 concert grand with its fully open lid. That’s hardly a good starting point, as with early classical works this almost inevitably leads to balance issues. Also sound-wise, a modern grand is far away from what Mozart could possibly have envisaged. Already the first movement essentially confirmed these concerns:
I was very pleased with the light, detailed articulation, the fresh, lively tempo. Nicholas Rimmer at the piano was very careful in dynamics and articulation. Naturally, where the piano had a lead role. That’s very often the case with Mozart’s chamber music, naturally. The Steinway sound dominated. I mean, in terms of sound mixing, articulation, legato (or close to legato) articulation, the instrument sounded like a modern grand. Even the lightest of articulations can’t “fix” this (I’m looking at this from the point-of-view of performances with period instruments).
I was also happy to see that the string players were careful with the use of vibrato. Often, focal notes used little vibrato, often even none at all (often enough, string players use vibrato for highlighting!).
At the very beginning, I had the impression that the piano had the lead role within the ensemble; but that was in the nature of the composition. Later (and through most of the evening), I rather felt that the violin took the lead. Certainly, from his character, the violinist seemed the most active and extroverted personality. Often, I served how the pianist was looking at the violinist (at least with peripheral vision, if not directly), for best coordination (especially at beginnings). Sadly, the cello only has a very minor role in this music, often just reinforcing the bass line. This often created the impression of a violin sonata (sonata for piano and violin, that is), with occasional bass reinforcement. In parts, that impression is also a consequence of the dominance of the piano, especially in the lower registers.
Expectedly, the exposition was repeated—that’s really a must. Omitting the repetition of the second half (development, recap and coda), however, is just fine. It’s mostly just a convention to add repeat signs for the second part.
II. Andante cantabile
Naturally for Mozart, but still interestingly, it’s the piano, the instrument that—among these three—has the hardest time “singing”, which presents the very nice cantabile theme, followed by the violin, then by the cello. That’s the first time he cello had a “foreground role” in this piece. Its sound was warm, round, bright rather than dark and bulbous. In the repetition of the first part, I enjoyed the discreetly placed extra ornaments on all tree instruments. The second part of the movement breaks out from the pure cantabile into more dramatic, earnest segments, but of course returns to the mood of the serene beginning.
Throughout the movement, the articulation was very careful, and in the second half, the violin moved into very soft, almost whispered pp spheres. One quibble, though: I felt that the use of vibrato did not always seem to follow a specific (or recognizable) concept or philosophy (my personal preference clearly would be less vibrato, using it to highlight key notes specifically—and discreetly).
Sadly, Mozart’s composition leaves little chance for the musicians to develop an ensemble sound. And the modern concert grand made this even hugely more difficult, in that for instance, the violin with its bright sound could impossibly mix with either of the other two instruments.
Now, this movement really calls for a period instrument, such as a Walther fortepiano.! Even though the pianist played carefully and with light articulation, in the lengthy semiquaver passages, the Steinway grand dominated completely here, leaving the other instruments no chance to produce an adequate contribution. That said: the coordination within the ensemble was excellent throughout, also across agogics.
Kagel: Piano Trio No.2 (2001)
The German-Argentinean composer Mauricio Kagel (1931 – 2008) wrote three piano trios, which were apparently conceived as a cycle:
- No.1 (1985)
- No.2 (2001)
- No.3 (2007)
The second trio is using music / themes from the Instrumental Theater “Entführung im Konzertsaal” (Abduction in the Concert Hall). Kagel originally planned to write three movements. However, exactly when the composer completed the first movement, he learned about the terror attacks in New York on that same day, 2001-09-11, and so he decided to leave the composition as is.
Even though the second quartet is now linked to the events of 9/11 in 2001, the music itself has of course nothing to do with what happened there. It was entirely composed beforehand. Structurally, it does not follow any conventional scheme, and it actually does not require an underlying script or narrative. Kagel’s music does not feature a recognizable, recurring theme or melody. There is no recognizable structure, other than the sequence of hardly related episodes.
The music is definitely often rather dissonant. However, it does evoke pictures, it follows an abstract dramatic action (the music can’t deny its provenance from theater music), and at the same time, Kagel’s music (also in others of his compositions) is also full of irony and humor. With this, even though it may sound cryptic to seasoned (classical) concertgoers, it’s entertaining music. Kagel wrote a piece that one can enjoy without major intellectual effort. One can just let the mind follow the emerging associations, pictures and scenes that the music evokes.
Definitely, the soundscape in this piece is very much different from any classical or romantic music! I perceived this as colorful sound painting, which doesn’t just work with “nice” tones, but just as well with noises, alienated sounds, using a broad variety of techniques. Melody fragments mix with whirring tones from tremolo notes on the cello. Mysterious atmosphere alternates with erupting emotions, anger, loud “chatting & discussions”, possibly machine-like noises (or are these the noises in our day-to-day world?). If there are harsh dissonances, they don’t last long, as the sequence of scenes, moods, etc. is so rapid, so multifaceted. There never is a danger of the listener getting bored! And I can definitely see humor in this music!
I just want to pick some moments / aspects in the performance. there is a segment with folk-like rhythms, maybe also with Eastern influence. Whistling tones on the violin, grinding dissonances, distorting the string sound by playing sul ponticello (at the end of the string) and sul tasto (above the fingerboard), eruptive build-ups, pizzicato vs. extreme vibrato, sections with muted strings, col legno playing, sound clusters, of course. Some passages must be physically tiring on the violin—but then, there are also serene, singing segments.
At one point, the pianist puts a cloth onto the descant strings, which allow him to make the instrument sound like a crowd or dwarfs, or a flock of chatting birds. Then again, there are several instances where musicians and audience listen to loud piano (bass) sound clusters fading away into total silence, raising expectations on what’s following. It’s definitely very entertaining, theater-like, and fascinating, covering atmospheres from serene to filled with tension, from vivid to (often) dramatic. And Kagel is rarely ever using known musical topoi.
Playing this music must be a physical and intellectual challenge. For all I can tell (I do not have a score with this music), the Trio Gaspard mastered this unusual and interesting piece with professional sovereignty. They offered a compelling interpretation of rarely heard, likely underrated music.
Needless to say that there were no balance issues here, as Kagel wrote this for modern instruments.
Schubert: Notturno in E♭ major, op.148, D.897
People speculate whether the Notturno in E♭ major, op.148, D.897 (the title Notturno is not original, but is an addition by the publisher), which Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) completed in 1827, was originally conceived as slow movement to the Piano Trio No.1 in B♭ major, D.898. It’s a single movement (Adagio) in ABABA form.
The “A” part is really touching, dreamy, transfigured music, all harmoniously in thirds and sixths—pure serenity! The Trio Gaspard offered a coherent, fitting interpretation and performance, careful, very atmospheric, never exaggerating the solemnity, though: after all, the movement is Adagio, but in 2/2 (alla breve) time. The relatively fluent tempo was perfectly adequate. There is no need to try squeezing tears out of this music!
In the more dramatic “B” parts, all in semiquaver triplets on the piano, the artists formed an impressive, big, dynamic arch—one single, grandiose gesture. It’s music that is so beautiful that it instantly sticks to one’s mind. At the same time, it is so unique, so much one if its kind that Schubert possibly found that it hardly fits into the context of two or three additional movements? In this concert, however, this piece offered minutes of pure, serene enlightenment. And it fitted perfectly to the Schönberg that followed!
Schönberg: “Verklärte Nacht” (Transfigured Night), op.4 (arr. Eduard Steuermann, 1932)
Arnold Schönberg (1874 -1951) wrote his “Verklärte Nacht” (Transfigured Night), op.4 as a string sextet, in 1899. I have previously written about this music, on the occasion of an orchestral concert performance in Zurich, on 2015-04-21. For this concert, the Trio Gaspard selected the transcription for piano trio from 1932 by the Austrian (later American) pianist and composer Eduard Steuermann (1892 – 1964).
I was very curious (and skeptical) to hear how Schönberg’s music for six strings (or six string voices and double-basses) would translate onto piano trio. And what I heard didn’t really convince me of the “translation”. As a stand-alone / autonomous piece, Steuermann’s transposition may be OK, has its merits, for sure. I can’t deny that the transposition is fairly sophisticated, cleverly, aptly done. However, once one has heard Schönberg’s original, one cannot possibly abstract from it. Consequently, it left me somewhat disappointed.
Schönberg’s original is based on six equivalent voices, at different pitch, but with very similar character. One obvious, major change was that the piano had to take over several of the string voices, leaving only key passages to violin and cello. To me, the result sounded like rehearsing two voices an opera or an oratorio, with the bulk of a (orchestral) composition condensed onto a single piano. A concert grand is a poor substitute for four string voices. It may be able to play all notes in the score—but with an entirely different character. With the piano, there seems to be more “action”, most of the serenity, of the “transfigured atmosphere” is lost (or has gone through considerable abstraction).
It was for good reasons that Schönberg wrote this for string instruments, as these can ideally realize the pensive, reflective atmosphere in this music. The piano is too “concrete”, not mysterious enough. And the two string voices can’t mix into an ensemble of six voices, but stand out individually, especially the violin, which is frequently having very exposed, highest pitch passages, sounding rather acute in this context.
Highlight & Conclusion
In general, the trio sounded more modern, more contemporary, less romantic, less harmonious than Schönberg’s original. There was, however, a highlight moment around bar 229ff., annotated Adagio (orchestral version) or Sehr breit und langsam (“very broad and slowly”, in the original sextet version), where also the transposition sounded very harmonious, and very romantic. At the same time, it seemed to relate directly to Schubert’s Notturno. Also, the last third felt fairly romantic and somehow appeased me with the deficiencies of the transposition: it still is really beautiful music!
I also had the impression that in this transposition, proper intonation (on violin and cello, obviously) is much more of a challenge than in Schönberg’s original sextet version. The musicians did really well, though—even though one could feel the challenges! Overall, the performance was definitely impressive, considering that Schönberg’s score is full of tempo changes, and that almost every note has some type of annotation about dynamics or articulation. And it remains a single movement of 30 minutes, with very intense music throughout! I can only congratulate the artists for this evening’s performance!
To summarize: I’d prefer this transposition to be called a composition by Eduard Steuermann, “after Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht, op.4″. As such, it was definitely also most enjoyable music, even though it can’t come close to Schönberg’s original.