Last night, in the pre-concert talk at Old First Church marking the conclusion of their Old First Concerts residency, the three member of the Delphi Trio (violinist Liana Bérubé, cellist Michelle Kwon, and pianist Jeffrey LaDeur) offered some micro-level analysis to demonstrate the structural unity in each of the three works on their program. On audience side, however, what was most striking about this concert was the stylistic diversity of those three compositions in the context of a broader flow of music history. While those pieces were performed in reverse chronological order, they were discussed in temporal order; and I feel it is appropriate to do the same.
The earliest work on the program was the second (E-flat major) of the two piano trios published by Ludwig van Beethoven as his Opus 70. The Opus 70 trios were composed in 1808, the year of the Opus 67 C minor symphony (the fifth). Not only do those trios differ radically from that “heroic” symphony; but also they differ from each other, particularly in rhetorical style. We should not be misled by the “Ghost” name assigned to the first (not by Beethoven). However, each of the three movements has its own characteristic approach to intensity; and the trio is nicely complemented by the general affability of the four movements of the second.
Indeed, there is more than just affability in this second trio. Joseph Haydn was still alive when it was composed; and, once again, we see the former student determined to show his former teacher that he has all of his master’s capacity for wit and then some. Each of the four movements develops its own rhetoric of wit. In contemporary terms, however, the most effective may be the second movement, beginning as an almost dainty gavotte, which is then contrasted by a trio with pounding rhythms. (Monty Python fans may be reminded of the Norwegian Herring Dance routine.)
The full scope of the trio’s wit was fully evident in last night’s performance. It was never exaggerated, which is why it had so much impact. Indeed (again in Monty Python style), the musicians “played it straight,” simply allowing adequate breadth in their phrasing through which each of Beethoven’s little jokes could speak for itself. It is easy to see why this trio delights so many lovers of chamber music, even if it lacks the “audience appeal” of a catchy title.
The other end of the nineteenth century was represented by Anton Arensky’s D minor trio (Opus 32). In this music the listener encounters more overt outpourings of passion. The rhetoric can be traced back to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, refined through the sensibilities of Arensky’s own teacher, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. However, while many of those heartbreaking qualities associated with D minor are expressed so overtly, the Scherzo (second) movement has a refreshing lightness enhanced with the subtle sonorities of its bowing and pizzicato techniques.
Here, again, the Delphi Trio “played it straight.” In terms of either structural sophistication or thematic inventiveness, there would be no confusing Arensky with Beethoven (or, for that matter, Johannes Brahms). Nevertheless, the music has its own way of saying its piece. Delphi dutifully channeled Arensky’s stylistic premises to engage the listener in what he had to say.
Most distinctive, however, was the beginning of the program with “Big Sky,” composed by Joan Tower in 2000 and influenced by her experience of growing up in the mountains of Bolivia (rather than the state of Montana). One might call this a “tone poem;” but the poem is a lyric rather than a narrative one. One might also think of some of the Alpine depictions in the first (Swiss) “year” of Franz Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage; but there is an austerity in Tower’s musical language that is even more economical than what one encounters in Beethoven’s structural intricacies.
“Big Sky” is a relatively short composition. That put it closer to the scale of a single movement from either of the other two piano trios. Nevertheless, Delphi captured those evocative qualities that one would associate with the best of lyric poetry. One could appreciate the reasoning behind that reverse chronological ordering, since this was music that readily seized the attention of the listener, thus preparing that listener for both the romantic outpourings of Arensky and the Haydn-like wit of Beethoven’s trio.