The performers at this afternoon’s Noontime Concerts™ (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) recital were the piano trio of violinist Michelle Maruyama, cellist Robert Howard, and pianist Miles Graber. The program consisted of a single composition, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 97 (“Archduke”) trio in B-flat major. This is one of the most familiar pieces in the entire chamber music repertoire; and I have been listening to it and writing about it for almost as much time as I have spent writing for zoomdune.com.
Some might think that, after a certain number of listening experiences, one would run out of things to say about this trio. However, this is music that lends itself to a wide variety of interpretations without requiring the performers to compromise the marks on the score pages. Thus, as long as there are performances that provide a new way of thinking about the music, there is no reason to feel that nothing more can be said about it.
Today’s performance was by such a gathering of highly perceptive and sensitive musicians. Most distinctive was the way in which they could take roughly 45 minutes of music and endow its four-movement construction with an overall shape. Without trivializing it, the shape was rather like that of a slide in a children’s playground. The peak came with the Presto coda at the end of the final movement. It was approached, through a step-by-step ascent (up a ladder, if you will), by the preceding three movements and the Allegro moderato rondo of the fourth movement, after which it tumbled down merrily into the final cadence.
This kind of long-range planning does not always readily register with the listener. In this case, however, the attentive listener was cued by the subdued approach taken in the very opening measures. This was not hesitancy or shyness. Perhaps the sense of understatement was one way to say to this listener, “You know this theme so well, we do not have to underscore it.” Indeed, by counting on that familiarity, they could not only repeat the exposition but also bump up the dynamic level, ever so slightly, during that repetition. By the time this movement reached its own coda, that sense of a gradual ascent had been firmly established.
Needless to say, the path was not always a direct one. As is the case with any music in “the classical style,” much of the life of the score had to do with the digressions and prolongations that the composer introduced. This was particularly the case with the variations form of the third, Andante cantabile ma però con moto, movement. This was one of Beethoven’s earliest efforts to develop variations on a simply-constructed but slow-paced extended theme. He would continue to explore this strategy for the rest of his life, making the logic with which he plays out his variations one of the best foresights of things to come. The variations have their own ascending path with respect to elaboration, making this movement a middle-level ascent within a long-range one.
The result of all this thoughtfulness is that the final Presto measures of the entire composition had such a well-defined sense of finality that the attentive listener could appreciate the full performance as a journey unto itself, thus creating a sense of satisfaction that is not always achieved by compositions of such a lengthy duration.