Sunday night in Sanders Theatre the Boston Chamber Music Society regulars treated us to Beethoven and two seldom performed works. Harumi Rhodes, violin; Ronald Thomas, cello; and Mihae Lee, piano opened with Beethoven’s Piano Trio in D major.
The trio was written in 1808 just after the Pastoral Symphony. It is known for its Largo assai ed espresso middle movement; eerie, strange, and sometimes longer than the two outer movements, Allegro vivace con brio and Presto, combined. The trio was nicknamed “Geistertrio” – the ghost trio – because of the otherworldly harmonies. The largo usually starts with pianissimo octaves from the violin and cello, dropping from D to A and then up to F, immediately and mysteriously pushing us into D minor. The piano quietly joins with a development of this theme. The result can be pretty scary and intense, particularly at a tempo on the low side of largo.
In the performance last night, the outer movements of the Beethoven were adequately lively and upbeat. But if there had been a ghost in the middle movement it was a friendly one. The movement started piano, not pianissimo, and the tempo was more andante than largo. The volume from the strings and the piano quickly rose well above piano, and the movement marched forward prettily, and ended without seeming long at all. The result was pleasant and musical – but not what I was hoping for.
The next piece was Concerto a tre for clarinet, violin, and cello by Ingolf Dahl. He escaped from Nazi Germany to the University of Southern California, where he taught music history, conducting, and composition. Among many other accomplishments he co-authored a translation of Stravinsky’s book “The Poetics of Music”. The first section of the “Concerto a tre,” labeled Allegretto comodo, opens with a jazzy sparse lightness reminiscent of Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks,” but works its way into thicker textures before shifting to the second section, labeled Assai moderato, which begins with a slow melody reminiscent of Copeland. The final section, Esitando-Presto, brings back the lightness of the first section, again developing into denser and thicker harmonies. Both the piece and the performance, by Rhodes, Thomas, and James Campbell, clarinet, were delightful.
The last piece on the program was Quintet for Violin, Clarinet, Horn, Cello, and Piano, op. 42 (1893) by Zdenêk Fibich, a Czech contemporary of Smetana and Dvorak. The musicians above were joined by William Purvis, playing an exceptionally shiny horn. According to the program notes, in 1886 Fibich began an affair with one of his students, and the deep passion that developed fueled his compositions. “Apparently it was clear to his wife that she was not the woman who inspired op. 42: she reportedly stormed off upon hearing it.”
The piece is lush and passionate, and so was the performance. The combination of horn and clarinet is particularly sonorous, and this occurred often. When all five instruments play at the same time the sound is very rich, and it is difficult to disentangle who is playing what. But Fibich knows when to let one or more players take a rest. For example, in the first the first trio section of the scherzo only the violin, horn, and piano play, and in the second trio section it is clarinet and the cello that play with the piano. Lovely Czech melodies are heard throughout.
A sonic quibble: Sanders Theatre has marvelous acoustics for this kind of music, although when the balcony is unoccupied the hall is overly reverberant and sound can be unclear in the more distant seats. On the whole the sound was excellent in my parquet seat directly in front of the piano. But there was a persistent balance problem. The cello was usually inaudible whenever the piano dynamic was over mezzo forte. This problem is endemic whenever a violoncello is paired with a modern Steinway. The modern piano can make much more noise than a cello, and pianists (and probably the audience) love hearing what the piano (which probably should be re-named the forte) can do. But the music suffers.
It is not just that I was sitting directly in front of the open lid. The piano lid should be open, as the clarity is much better that way, and the pianist is thus encouraged to lighten up. In the November 20th (2011) BCMS concert Randall Hodgkinson played the Haydn Piano’s Trio in C Major. I sat in the far right of the parquet, and the cello was almost always inaudible. I did not complain, as Mozart usually doubles the cello line in the piano. But Beethoven has much more for the cello to say than Mozart, and we should hear it.
Recording engineers face this problem all the time. No performer will accept a recording where the cello is inaudible, and they seem to think it is the engineer’s job to bring the cello out. The options are limited. You can set a main microphone much closer to the cello than the piano, but then the cello sounds too close to the speakers and the piano sounds too far away. Or you can place a microphone very close to the cello and mix it into the overall sound picture. The result is the same. There is no way out of this problem without adding reverberation to just the cello, and this is one of the major reasons for my development of digital reverberation. But why should balance that is unacceptable in a recording be so common in a concert? Balance should be the job of the players, not the sound engineers. Audiences might enjoy hearing the instrumental strengths and balance the composers had in mind.
David Griesinger is a Harvard-trained physicist who is eminent in the field of sound and music. His website is here.