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Is that’s what Beethoven needs?

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
03/08/2022 -  
Mykhailo Verbytsky: National Anthem of Ukraine
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F major, “Pastoral”, Op. 68 (arr. for trio by Shai Wosner) – Piano Trios No. 4 in B flat Major, “Gassenhauer”, Op. 11, & No. 5 in D Major, “Ghost”, Op. 70, No. 1

Emanuel Ax (Piano), Leonidas Kavakos (Violin), Yo‑Yo Ma (Cello)

L. Kavakos, E. Ax, Y.-Y. Ma (© Chris Lee)

On March 8th of 2020, the esteemed trio of super‑stars Emanuel Ax, Yo‑Yo Ma and Leonidas Kavakos performed at Carnegie Hall the last of their three concert series devoted to the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. Shortly thereafter, the life as we knew it, cultural and otherwise, came to an end in our country and the rest of the world as well. Two years to the date, the Trio appeared again on the same stage to continue their Beethoven project albeit not in the same manner. Whereas in 2020, each of the concerts presented one work for violin and piano, one for cello and piano, and one trio for all of those instruments, this time it was an evening of just piano trios. Well, perhaps not quite, even though the instrumentalists were there. That exception was the first piece in the program, which was the Carnegie Hall premiere of Beethoven Symphony No. 6 in an arrangement by the pianist Shai Wosner, who once was also piano student of Emanuel Ax. Of the three programmed works, only the last one performed, Trio in D Major, was played in its original version. The preceding one, a youthful work, Trio in B flat major, also with the nickname, though hardly pronounceable “Gassenhauer”, in the original version features the clarinet; yet some ensembles don’t mind using the violin instead.

The concert commenced with a short talk by Leonidas Kavakos who announced that the Trio, in standing together with Ukraine, will honor its citizens by performing their national anthem.

So what’s the story with Symphony No. 6? I suppose that the Trio, after taking upon themselves the recently record of two other symphonies, No. 2 and even the more famous No. 5 (recently published on CD), thought of further expanding its “symphonic” repertoire. The Symphony No. 2, arranged for the piano trio by Ferdinand Ries, was published during Beethoven’s time as Ries’ op. 38 and the transcription was supervised by the composer himself, while the transcription of the Symphony No. 5 was only recently commissioned by our artists from the British composer Colin Matthews. And now we have No. 6.

It is a well‑known fact that throughout the 19th century, many works, especially symphonic ones, were arranged for other instruments either in order to popularize them or to create an extra income for the composer, as in the case of Beethoven. One must keep in mind that those days it was an exception rather than a rule to hear a live performance of any symphonic work unless you inhabited a large city with an existing orchestra. There also existed a huge number of transcriptions of chamber music literature to be performed in the four‑hands version. Do we need it today, one may ask? And if so, will the transcriptions get us ever closer to the original, especially in the case of symphonic works depending mostly on the color and timbre of different instruments?

It seemed to me that the version for the piano trio as arranged by Shai Wosner, who has been known to me for years as a superb, versatile, and probing performer, rather than composer or transcriber, was very well and cleverly conceived. Needless to say in the “Pastoral” Symphony, much of the sameness in the motivic and structural development is compensated by its orchestration, instrumental colors and timbres. With the limitation of only three instruments much of it disappears. Still, the moments that we all wait for, such as bird calls, murmuring brooks, or especially the storm section, gave our arranger no trouble and were imitated very cleverly. The bucolic character in the “Scene by the brook” was nicely retained and the boisterous thumping in the “Merry gathering of the country folk” was also convincingly portrayed. We all waited to see/hear how much noise will Mr. Ma be able to produce on his cello in the “Thunder, storm” section and the answer is: plenty! And those bird calls with the cello harmonics and upper‑register piano notes were both witty and superbly executed. The finale “Shepherd song” is about the most relaxed of all Beethoven finales: expansive, low‑voltage, devoid of tension, bucolic, and yes, pastoral. But that also makes it difficult for the three instruments in state-of-inertia.

The performance of the symphony‑trio was predictably high‑caliber though not without some problems, both in ensemble and in the sound of the strings. It is rare that Mr. Ma encounters intonation issues, but here even he momentarily succumbed. From my location, the sound of the violin was a bit astringent, thin and lacking in presence. That situation has dramatically improved in the two proper trios performed in the second half. As always, Mr. Ax shined at the keyboard: musical, ideally matching his string partners, assertive when necessary and subdued when needed, pianistically always on top. There was a familiar and frequent spark in the Trio op. 11, especially in the final variation and delicacy in the melodious Adagio. There the other two instruments shined as well, nowhere better in a bit polyphonic variation No. 2, which still sounds better with the original clarinet.

In my memory, and undoubtedly in Mr. Ax’s memory as well, one of the unforgettable performances of the “Ghost” Trio was one that took place in May of 1969 on the same stage. Then the pianist was Eugene Istomin, violinist Isaac Stern and cellist Leonard Rose. Mr. Rose was Yo‑Yo Ma’s longtime teacher, Istomin was a model of a chamber musician for us all, and Stern, who was perhaps the greatest influence on young musicians of that era, later became a frequent partner of Messrs. Ax and Ma. The ferocity with which Mr. Stern attacked the ferocious opening phrase of the Trio op. 70 No. 1 caused the string to break after only a few measures. At least here, with Mr. Kavakos we were not in exactly the same danger. Still the tension, nimbleness and agility of the outer movements, the energy and fervor were perceptible and tactile.

The enthused audience– and one could hardly restrain one’s enthusiasm after this ebullient performance of the “Ghost Trio– demanded an encore and got one, perhaps the most appropriate for the occasion. It was the Allegretto movement of the Trio in E flat Major op. 70 No. 2 and it was a nice arch to the rustic, Schubertian, and yes, pastoral mode of the opening piece.

As for the “Pastoral” Symphony: Shai Wosner intriguingly closes his comments on the work with a statement: “The folk‑like style that Beethoven emulates–his era’s idealization of country life–may seem naïve to us today, but for the audiences in the crowded Viennese theater in 1808 the “pastoral” connected instinctively to lilting rhythms and blissful tunes. (Now) rather than a country fair, the version for trio, in its intimacy, is a picnic for three.”

Well, a picnic sounds fine but what are we putting in the basket? Just anything to eat or something that would make us not only return to the picnic location but also to the delicious food we brought along the first time. If–figuratively speaking–I were to return it wouldn’t be to the Isaac Stern Auditorium, but more likely something closer in size to the Weill Hall, in the same building. And regarding the menu: perhaps something of a gourmet quality? Shouldn’t we have a composition that is at least the same quality as other Beethoven trios? A composition, in which you might be looking forward to a certain solo passage (say, second theme of Schubert Trio with its gorgeous cello solo, or piano solo in, well, almost any piano trio!), in other words, an element that was sorely missed in case of the “Pastoral” Symphony. Or perhaps work from Beethoven’s era to place some of his other trios in context?

Lest the reader assumes that this reviewer is against transcribing works into other instrumental combinations, he would be sorely mistaken. I do love transcriptions such as Schubert songs arranged by Liszt or Beethoven symphonies also arranged by Liszt for solo piano; in both cases they show the struggle, an attempt to conquer the instrument, to show its abilities. I like any and all transcriptions of Bach works: they usually work even if played on the kazoo.

Regardless of how well Mr. Wosner arranged and transcribed Symphony No. 6, the most we got were the well‑known, beloved tunes that proved it can be done. Where I do see the application of such arrangements of symphonies-for-piano-trio would be in the conducting studio, where an aspiring young conductor would benefit much more from such cooperation than from just one, hapless pianist hacking through an unwieldy, unplayable piano reduction. But again, this is only the opinion of one critic, who would probably be happier if given a chance to hear Mr. Wosner’s effort in at least a smaller venue.

And if given a chance to hear another performance of that transcription, would I be able to say “well, it doesn’t compare to the Ax Ma Kavakos version from Carnegie Hall”? This was perhaps the most regrettable aspect of the presentation: a possibility that the future performances will not differ all that much from each other because the nature of this symphony will never allow the instrumentalists to shine like the ones in real piano trios.

Roman Markowicz



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