Last night I went to a program of Beethoven’s chamber music hosted by Bargemusic. It was three pieces by Beethoven – variations for cello and piano on the theme from the “Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen” duet from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, violin sonata no. 10 and the archduke trio. The performers were Mark Peskanov (violin), Nicholas Cannellakis (cello) and Nina Kogan (piano). I learned two things from this performance. One was that maritime performance spaces have their ups and their downs. (I mean, have you ever stopped to wonder what the operational constraints are on a piano trio, as far as the pitch of the performing platform is concerned? I can now say, proudly, that I have wondered this.)
The other thing is actually more interesting. This concert was revelatory musically precisely because the performances were not perfect. The Mozart variations, for example, did not seem to quite click until the last two variations or so. Earlier on, the cellist’s phrasing seemed fuzzy around the edges – it was as if he hadn’t decided quite how the lines all fit together.
Something similar was at work in the violin sonata. This had a feeling of greater ease to it, and the violinist (despite the feel of some of the attacks in the quicker sections being ground out rather than ringing) had a really lovely, singing tone, especially in the longer ascending and descending passages in the two central movements (and the arpeggios which I think appear soon after the beginning of the first). But it wasn’t until the last movement where you got not just (mostly) all the right notes in the right places but also a feel of communication between the two performers. It got exciting then.
What both this and the previous piece brought home to me was how difficult this music is to play. I have heard a lot of great performances of Beethoven – they have a way of getting recorded, somehow – and often with really phenomenal renditions of a given piece, you forget how many things have to be going right at once in order for the magic to happen. With performances that are really good but not phenomenal, you can hear an ensemble move from merely playing the right notes together to really clicking and playing together. You can hear little unintentional transitions from those moments of lean, mean, awesome duet or trio playing to sections where the thread of the phrasing gets lost, or the communication isn’t seamless, or where a transition (e.g. the transition from the 3rd to the 4th movements of the archduke trio) doesn’t quite hang together the way it should. It really brings home how you can play all the notes, but an important part of the music is in phrasing and structure and communication. This shit is hard to play.
But even if not perfectly executed the archduke trio is still a hell of a piece, isn’t it. In this performance, the first two movements were on. It wasn’t perfect in every note, but these three musicians went into it with an energy and a passion and an obvious pleasure in what they were doing that was really wonderful. (In general, these three were at their best at the moments when they could lean into the music and just go hell bent for leather – some of the more contemplative sections got a bit murky.) I lost the thread of things a little in the third movement and it seemed like the structure of it had come loose – and, as noted above, the transition to the last section, one of those Beethoveny drawn out ones that is as much rhythm and timing as anything else, did not quite come off – but by the end they were back. I was absorbed the entire time, and it was terrific fun to listen to.