The Boston Trio (Irina Muresanu, violin; Astrid Schween, cello; Heng-Jin Park, piano) presented some of the most formidable Beethoven I’ve heard in some time at Jordan Hall Sunday night. His Trio in E-Flat Major Op. 70, #2, is contemporaneous with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies—and it is the “other” trio in Op. 70, the first being the better-known “Ghost”. Steven Ledbetter’s excellent program notes drew attention to how elements of Mozart and Haydn are definitively transformed by Beethoven, Mozartean melodic gestures in the first movement, Haydnesque variation in the second. To my ears, the piece also looks forward to the late Beethoven, with humor both sly and brusque: a wrong-key recapitulation in the first movement, extreme juxtapositions of mood in the second, a veritable embarrassment of material in the last movement leading to fascinating developmental jostling. The third movement is in triple-time but is more song than minuet, lyricism winning out over dance. It is a big piece with a lot of ambition, and the threesome was more than up to the challenge. The ensemble produced a big, hall-filling sound that to my ears is built on the foundation of Park’s playing, which succeeded in being both full-throated and supportive. Far from threatening to cover the strings, somehow the volume of her playing seemed to amplify them. Both Muresanu and Schween were fearless in their attacks and subtle in their phrasing, and the combination of all three was impressive, and occasionally tremendous. Collaboratively they created a powerful, strong and forceful presence as they stood up to Beethoven without flinching. The abrupt emotional transitions of the second movement were executed expertly, with a sense of confident play; the flow of third movement was lithe and responsive. The last movement moved from subject to subject with a thrilling enthusiasm—enough enthusiasm that there were some passing moments of uncertain pitch, as the strings threw themselves heedlessly into the spirit of the movement. At his most dramatic, Beethoven sounds like he is grappling with something almost too large to encompass, but which he has succeeded in bringing under his control. The performance itself had this sense of contested mastery, and the outcome was never in doubt.
A similar controlled intensity was brought to bear on Anton Arensky’s Trio in D minor, making similar demands on a piece that wasn’t quite able to support them. Written in 1894, the work is full of Russian romanticism, expressed primarily through attractive melodic ideas that reappear with regularity. The players approached the piece seriously; even though their playing was replete with portamento, this was no indulgent sentimental reading. The opening “allegro moderato” moved along quite briskly, even breathlessly; and the skittery scherzo that followed was taut and closely argued. The slow third movement Elegie was painstakingly articulated, and the final movement was brilliant. They shone a bright light on the piece, but I’m not sure it needs to be seen quite so clearly. It might have been a bit kinder to the piece to let it relax a bit and indulge in some soft-headed fogginess.
In the evening opener, Elena Ruehr’s The Scarlatti Effect, the piano part was taken by Christopher Staknys, a 17-year-old performer and composer who currently attends Falmouth High School and who is a student at the NEC Preparatory School, where the Boston Trio is in residence. Ruehr is a member of the MIT music faculty and has been on a lot of local programs in the last couple of years. She wrote The Scarlatti Effect in 1997 for Donald Berman for a concert for First Night. Drawing on motives and melodies from Scarlatti’s piano sonatas, it takes the form of a chain of vignettes of varying mood and character. The language is predominantly tonal, with a few dark episodes of dissonance that quickly evaporate. The opening music reappears several times, a rollicking episode that has a winning rhythmic feel. The work has the developmental sense of a Stravinsky ballet, and uses repetition as a structural element without ever becoming merely repetitive. It projects a feeling of celebration and of joy and of slightly unstable dancing, all appropriate to its genesis. Staknys acquitted himself nobly, showing no nerves despite having the composer in the audience—though an overenthusiastic left hand occasionally overwhelmed his partners in the more rambunctious episodes.