Beethoven had a real affinity for piano trios. From his very first published work (the three piano trios Op. 1) to his seventh work in that form (Op. 97, the “Archduke,” from his triumphant middle period), Vienna’s unparalleled musical original found in the trio a way to bridge the gap between the sonata and symphonic form. Beethoven’s Trios, a February performance from Princeton University Concerts, proved the form is going strong.
Yet with the exception of the Archduke, these works for violin, cello, and piano are generally not as well known as his other major works. When played at all, they seem to be regarded as also-rans rather than works of startling creativity and dazzling humor comparable to the sonatas and quartets. Fortunately, the February 6 show at Princeton University Concerts offered two trios and one set of variations propelled by fiery energy, the deepest feeling, and some very contemporary wit.
Cheeky good cheer
The musicians of this nameless chamber music ensemble are well known to local audiences, both through the Princeton concerts and also the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s excellent programs: violinist Isabelle Faust, cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, and pianist Alexander Melnikov. All are known not only for their technical mastery, but for their out-of-the-box imaginative thinking about the works they play, individually and together, and for their daring repertoire. At the peak of their form in mid-career, these artists play with a zest that showcases Beethoven as a living, loving, laughing presence in his 250th anniversary year.
The program featured three works for this musical configuration, opening with the lighthearted Kakadu variations (Op. 121a, but composed much earlier than the publication date would suggest). This work was followed by the E-flat Major trio, Op. 70, No. 2, composed after the fifth and sixth symphonies, when the composer was 37. The program concluded with the justly famous Trio in B-flat major, Op. 97, the “Archduke.”
The Kakadu, 10 variations on a trivial theme by Austrian composer Wenzel Müller, was probably begun during Beethoven’s earliest years in Vienna and completed some two decades later. Beginning with a somewhat disconnected slow introduction in G minor, the variations spring to life with a cheeky good cheer. It’s a fine piece to warm up audience and performers alike, though this reading could have emphasized Beethoven’s whimsy and swagger just a bit more.
Beethoven’s favorite keys
The group really caught fire, however, in the E-flat trio. (Beethoven frequently used E-flat and its close cousin, C minor, in works that best convey expansiveness, open-heartedness, and divine and human majesty—think Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica.”) In this and the Archduke following it, the ensemble displayed a balance of dynamics, flow, and conversational elan that was just about perfect. What beautiful, majestic runs in Melnikov’s bold style, and some mysterious string writing that seems to foreshadow the late quartets. There is sparkly energy, like static electricity, in the grace-note-like blips that chirp throughout the second movement, leading to a quick exchange of sidelong glances and a sudden exclamation point at the end.
The work is spangled with effects, like an unexpected chromatic passage in the piano that appears several times in the third movement, strange even to our modern ears. Queyras’s playful phrasings, expression of youthful energy, and delightful synergy with Faust brought out the humor of this work, which sometimes caused the audience to laugh appreciatively.
The miracle of great music
The program concluded with the imposing B-flat trio, dedicated to the Archduke Rudolph, who was to become one of Beethoven’s closest personal friends and the recipient of many coveted dedications. The first movement of this work is a marvel of musical construction, with Beethoven tearing off bits of the main theme and developing them in ways that defy convention, each subtheme taking on a life of its own. The work gains in momentum as it progresses, expanding from a work for merely three instruments, designed to be enjoyed in someone’s parlor, to a work of infinite vision and scope with no end in sight. Such is the miracle of great music in all traditions.
My only criticism throughout the concert was that Faust’s playing, while excellent, was often too soft to be clearly heard. This may have been due to some environmental factor. Faust was a worthy partner of her two companion artists, displaying exquisite phrasing and establishing her important role in the esprit de corps and synergy that made this particular performance and program so electrifying.
What, When, Where
Beethoven’s Trios. Ludwig van Beethoven, Variations in G Major on Wenzel Müller’s “Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu,” Op. 121a; Piano Trio in E-flat Major, Op. 70, No. 2; Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 97 “Archduke.” Isabelle Faust, violin; Jean-Guihen Queyras, cello; and Alexander Melnikov, piano. Princeton University Concerts. February 6, 2020, in Richardson Auditorium of Alexander Hall, Princeton University campus, New Jersey. (609) 258-2800 or princetonuniversityconcerts.org .
Princeton University Concerts provides wheelchair-accessible and companion seating, assisted listening devices, and accessible restrooms and parking. To drop off guests with limited mobility or to reach the limited number of accessible parking spaces, patrons should enter campus via the south guard booth on Elm Drive, off of Faculty Road. For more information, call the concert office.