Originally published on March 29, 2009 and reproduced with minor revisions
Tonight András Schiff performs the first of his final two recitals in his cycle of the complete piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven in which he will play the “monumental” Opus 106 in B-flat major (“Hammerklavier”); but this afternoon at Herbst Theatre the piano trio of Jaime Laredo (violin), Sharon Robinson (cello), and Joseph Kalichstein (piano) prepared the ears with a stimulating reading of the Opus 97 (“Archduke”) trio in B-flat major, which probably counts as the “monument” of the piano trio canon. Completed in 1811, this trio precedes the opening sonata of tonight’s program (Opus 90 in E minor) by about three years and is one of Beethoven’s great adventures in exploring conventional structures prior to departing from them in his final piano sonatas. For my ears the high point of this trio is its theme-and-variations third movement, where Beethoven departs from choosing a simple theme in favor of what I have previously called “a more elaborate structure unto itself, which could then be mined for variations from many diverse perspectives.” The trio thus honors the usual conventions while preparing us for the ground that Beethoven would concentrate on breaking in only a few years.
While the work itself may be monumental, Laredo, Robinson, and Kalichstein avoided placing it on any pedestal. Their approach was affable and accessible. Beethoven was not trying to provoke but to please in this trio. The “revolutionary” insights come only with later reflection; and the musicians knew how to draw us into the most receptive spirit that the music deserved.
They took the same approach with the equally “monumental” second trio in E minor (Opus 67) by Dmitri Shostakovich, even though this work is far more provocative, beginning with the cello introducing the first subject above the normal playing range of the violin and progressing to a final movement based on Jewish folk material, which would have been an extremely daring move to make in 1944 Russia. This trio is remarkable for the way in which Shostakovich compresses his usual orchestral thinking into the capacities for a wide range of sonorities in these three instruments. One can only listen in awe as he turns one trick after another, even setting aside one in the second movement that invokes Beethoven’s thematic material from the sonata canon. The only way this trio can be approached is with firm confidence and conviction; and that is exactly what the performers delivered, giving what may be one of the most memorable works of the twentieth century the best imaginable platform for presentation.
This storm was preceded by a rather unique calm to open the program. This was the WoO 39 allegretto movement in B-flat major (the same key as the “Archduke”). This movement was written in 1812 for the nine-year-old Maximiliane Brentano as a model to instruct her in proper composition. In 1820 this same Miss Brentano would be the dedicatee of his Opus 109 E major sonata (which will open the second of the coming Schiff recitals). It is clear that Beethoven had much affection for her, and the performers brought out that affection in the subtleties of what could be mistaken for a rather simple exercise. The result was an overall experience in the compositional scope of two major composers that made for a truly memorable San Francisco afternoon!