Beaux Arts Trio

Schlaflied [UK premiere]
Piano Trio in E flat, Op.70/2
Piano Trio in E minor, Op.90 (Dumky)

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

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 27 January, 2005
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

If you were to ask anyone over 45 to name a piano trio then the Beaux Arts would probably be top the list. Since its debut in 1955 the group’s different musicians have recorded virtually the entire repertoire – more than once in many works – and given innumerable concerts and masterclasses. Fifty years is a long time and unsurprisingly there have been several personnel changes. The present line-up dates from 2002 with Daniel Hope’s arrival. From creation the driving force has been Menahem Pressler and, in the best possible sense of the word, he has, at 80, become something of an institution in his own right.

To its credit the Beaux Arts has always championed contemporary music and the concert started with the UK premiere of Jan Müller-Wieland’s Schlaflied which is dedicated to Menahem Pressler on his 80th-birthday and the Trio’s 50th-anniversary. Müller-Wieland was born in Hamburg in 1966 and studied with Hans Werner Henze. He has won several composition awards and his output includes opera and vocal, chamber and symphonic music. Schlaflied is in the form of an Adagio prelude based on a recurring three-note phrase from Brahms’s ‘lullaby’, which is then varied in an arch-like structure, with the piano supplying sparse, single, sustained notes that only transform into three- and four-part chords in the long coda. The composer makes no attempt to ingratiate himself with the listener tonally; for example the first variation comes in the form of off-the-note double-stopping, which continued throughout the work. But in its 15-minute span there was absolute silence in the hall, the entire audience understandably held spellbound by the composer’s soundworld. A work I look forward to hearing again.

Beethoven’s E flat Piano Trio is an enigmatic work consisting of two Allegros flanking two Allegrettos. The first Allegro is prefaced by a Poco sostenuto introduction and here it was obvious that the Beaux Arts don’t have much time for modern string-playing or the influence of ‘authentic’ performing practice! There was loads of vibrato, instinctive portamento and swells of tone and Pressler certainly wasn’t afraid to use the sustaining pedal. It was also quite clear that this is a partnership of equals, no one tried to dominate and a sense of scale and balance was always apparent. But in the second movement double variations this approach gave the phrasing a soft edge and the tempo was very slow. There was a similar lack of definition and attack in the next movement and the finale was also too relaxed and only came to life in the coda.

In the famous ‘Dumky’ Trio (which the Beaux Arts has just recorded for Warner Classics) the performers are confronted with a series of six dumka – a Ukrainian folk ballad – with contrasting slow and fast sections. The score has numerous tempo markings that include in the slower sections, Lento maestoso, Poco adagio, Andante, and Andante moderato. These markings need to be respected in order to give the work expressive variety. The Beaux Arts though came close from the opening phrases onwards to making all theses sections sound very slow, for example the Poco adagio start to the second dumka became ‘molto adagio’ and the contrasting dance-like Vivace episodes never really took wing. As in the Beethoven the performance needed more spontaneity, variety and attack to bring it to life.

The musicians gave two encores: the last movement of Hummel’s Trio in G, Op.65 and the ‘Romance’ from Frank Bridge’s Miniatures. In the Hummel, for the first time in the recital, there was real spring and transparency in the playing. In many ways this was magnificent chamber playing, the richness of the sound, the immaculate ensemble and the studied but deeply felt approach to tempo and phrasing all brought substantial rewards. However the lack of definition, delineation and detail gave the playing a sense of plush uniformity which left me feeling short-changed.

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