Beaux Arts Trio – Schubert

Piano Trio in B flat, D898
Piano Trio in E flat, D929

Beaux Arts Trio [Menahem Pressler (piano), Daniel Hope (violin) & Antonio Meneses (cello)]

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 18 November, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Beaux Arts Trio. Photograph: beauxartstrio.orgThe Beaux Arts Trio gave its first concert in July 1955; since then it has had three distinct periods, defined by changes in personnel. Up until 1969 the group consisted of Menahem Pressler, Daniel Guilet and Bernard Greenhouse. From then until 1987, Isodore Cohen was the violinist. Since then there have been several changes, culminating with the appointment of Daniel Hope in 2002. At its finest – in the sixties, seventies and early eighties – it was the best-known, and many would say the best, piano trio in the world. Its discography was huge and I treasure many of the earlier recordings, including the complete Haydn Trios, which is one of the glories of the gramophone.

The constant has been Menahem Pressler, who is now almost 85 and has decided to retire. It is hardly surprising and entirely proper that with his retirement the Trio will come to an end. This concert, the penultimate one in London, was part of a farewell tour. I have to admit that I did feel some trepidation at the choice of works. The group has recorded them twice with different personnel and neither version would be my first choice for the library. I need not have worried, from first note to last; this concert was a well-nigh-perfect example of the art of performing chamber music.

Well, not quite the first notes. The opening bars of the B flat Trio were a mess, with ensemble, balance and rhythm all over the place. And here and throughout the concert, Daniel Hope’s intonation was sometimes suspect. But his wonderfully old-fashioned swooping and swooning was superb, and both the cello and piano glowed. The second subject was slower and there was variable – but never less than generous – vibrato from both string players. At the top of the first half of the theme, there was a pause, which brought a smile of contentment to the lips. Throughout the movement there were numerous small tempo changes and exquisite use of rubato and touch from Pressler.

Of the slow movement little can be said – other than it was heart rending. From Antonio Meneses’s beautiful legato phrasing, replete with portamento, at ppp, of the first theme, to the exquisite dying fall of the final bars. I have never heard a finer performance. The scherzo was light and elegant and the musicians mostly played pp. Every bar and phrase seemed improvisatory, the emotional core deliberately elusive.

In the finale the opening tempo was steady and the second subject expanded beautifully. Once again there were numerous, entirely natural, tempo changes, huge dynamic contrasts and a way of holding on to the last notes of a phrase, as though the players didn’t want to say goodbye. But never once did they descend into sentimentality. Everything seemed entirely true and organic.

After the interval came the heavenly length of the E Flat Trio – and what a performance it received. In the first movement the string pizzicatos were dynamically varied, there were swells of tone from the strings and very assertive runs from the piano. Everywhere there was a sense of conversation and, as in the B flat, the tempo-changes were beautifully integrated into the structure. The speeds were never fast, but a sense of tension was ever-present and the climax before the codetta was massive. In the slow movement, Pressler started at a brisk tempo and then had to slow down as his partners took up and varied the theme, to which both brought their own phrasing and use of vibrato. Hope’s pizzicatos were exquisitely ethereal and contrasted with the huge power of the forte outbursts.

As in the B flat, the scherzo was enigmatic, the trio liquidly phrased. The whole movement breathed through a dazzling display of micro-dynamic variation. Schubert’s finale is wonderfully long and discursive. The composer endlessly transforms his two themes and almost seems reluctant to let them go. Much the same could be said of this performance. The opening was sprung and there was a sense of power in reserve. There were myriad changes of mood, suggested by shifting tonal colours, rhythm, touch, portamento, rubato and vibrato. After the first re-appearance of the slow movement march, the cello has a hypnotic pizzicato passage. Here Meneses rocked gently from side to side and Pressler’s tone became more crystalline. Like the composer, the performers didn’t seem to want to let go of the music, despite the power of the extended coda.

At the end the audience erupted to a standing ovation. In the case of both works I have never heard them done better. Indeed they will live in my memory, as an ideal. There were two encores. An account of the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s D minor Trio that fizzed with life, and a Beaux Arts speciality, the fourth movement from Dvořák’s ‘Dumky’ Trio, whose clock-like beat gradually dies away to nothing. An exquisitely beautiful, emotional and entirely fitting end to an era.

I am sure that all Classical Source’s readers will want to join me in wishing Menahem Pressler a long and fruitful retirement and to thank him and his colleagues – both present and past – for their enormous contribution to music-making and the art of interpretation over the last 50 years. For those who were not privileged to be present, BBC Radio 3 will broadcast the concert on 4 December. This was a life-affirming masterclass in the art of interpretation.

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