IN: Reviews

The Variation Principle as a Theme


Nikolia and Anton Rubinstein
Nikolai and Anton Rubinstein

The Boston Chamber Music Society’ season-long exploration of variation forms in larger musical works continued on Sunday at Sanders Theater featuring works of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky that include variation movements, and a Schumann set that, sensu largo, embodies a kind of variation principle in its total structure.

Rising star violinist Giora Schmidt and BCMS members violist Dimitri Murrath and cellist Ronald Thomas began with Beethoven’s early Serenade, op. 8 (also referred to as String Trio No. 2). Written to be a popular earner in the tradition of the dinner-music serenades of Mozart, this seven-movement work from 1795 begins (and ends) with a perky march that the trio presented vigorously and light-footedly, anachronistically reminding this listener of the jaunty tongue-in-cheek marches favored by Virgil Thomson. The succeeding adagio found Schmidt seeking sweetness, but coming up with a rather thin timbre that intermittently plagued his interpretations. The minuet that followed, written and performed more like a Ländler, displayed Beethoven’s genial side well, closing with a charming soft pizzicato gracefully executed by the trio. In the curious fourth movement, Schmidt found his voice in the outer adagios, while the intercalated scherzo once again found Beethoven in joke mode—and featured some licks that resurfaced, more brilliantly harmonized, in his “Ghost” Trio many years later. The next movement, a Polonaise, which was a popular bit of exotica to 18th-century audiences, was certainly far more decorous, for all its rhythmic vitality, than the Chopin versions a generation later. The sixth movement is the variation set, with a simple theme which nevertheless reveals a Beethoven meme in its repeated short phrase in the middle. Of the sometimes melodic and sometimes rhythmic variations, the former offers extended solos to each instrument in turn. Schmidt and Murrath were nimble and fluid in their florid turns, and Thomas was songful and soulful in his. Beethoven got one final joke in this movement, with one variation that ended as if in mid-air. The recessional march rounded out the work with a cheeky wink.

The program’s first half ended with Murrath and pianist Randall Hodgkinson in the viola version of Robert Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces, Op. 73, a work which stretched BCMS’s concept of variation. Dating from 1849, it was designed, like the Beethoven trio, so that amateur musicians could perform it (though its finale would stretch their capabilities). Its three conjoined movements share the tonality of A (minor for part of the first and major for the rest) and a triplet figure that runs through them all. Otherwise, they progress emotionally from a dreamy, dark and soulful opening, through gradations of brightness to a bravura finale. The Belgian-born and British-trained Murrath, who has been a BCMS core member for only a year, was carefully expressive in phrasing and dynamics, without pedantry. Though we frankly prefer the original clarinet version of this piece, which better exploits the cutting edge timbre of the “solo” instrument, Murrath made a fine case for the viola transcription with Hodgkinson’s amply supportive and discreet partnership.

The second half was given over to the monumentality of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A Minor, Op. 50. Though there seems to be a school of thought, carried through in Russia to this day, that says you can’t write chamber music well for piano and strings—all pure rubbish, of course, but you do have to pay attention to balance, Tchaikovsky reversed his early opposition to writing for this ensemble to produce a memorial to his friend, teacher and sometime champion Nikolai Rubinstein (brother of the more famous composer Anton). Apart from the fact that Tchaikovsky didn’t write a lot of chamber music, it is still a somewhat strange form, consisting of only two movements—but what movements they are! The first, in the usual sonata form but at a slowish tempo, with an effusion of themes and considerable bulk, is followed by a set of eleven variations plus a finale and coda on a theme intended to have a Russian character (though it hasn’t been identified as a pre-existing folk melody). What’s most interesting about these variations is how classical and un-Russian they come out; the memorial aspect, therefore, is to Rubinstein’s position (along with Tchaikovsky’s own) as a proponent of the Westernization of Russian music, a kind of manifesto to the blending of the Russian and Western idioms that the nationalists abhorred. That, in Tchaikovsky’s view, was Rubinstein’s proper legacy, which he, Medtner, Glière, Arensky and others would uphold and to which Rimsky-Korsakov would only belatedly come around.

The Tchaikovsky Trio is one of those pieces, like the Brahms First Piano Concerto we discussed a week or so ago, whose character changes dramatically depending on the speed at which it is taken. We think it comes out best taken briskly, and the BCMS players, Schmidt, Thomas and Hodgkinson, clocked in, by our reckoning, at an admirable 45 minutes; not as fast as the crackling 41 of Artur Rubinstein, Heifetz and Piatigorsky, but well ahead of the sclerotic 56 of several versions one can find. In the first movement, which Tchaikovsky called “Pezzo Elegiaco,” Schmidt and Thomas were appropriately passionate and Hodgkinson full-throated (maybe Tchaikovsky should have heeded his own advice, since the piano part could, in lesser hands, easily overwhelm even the throbbing effusions of the strings). Schmidt sometimes had trouble making a fat enough sound in the louder sections, but the softer, tender passages played to his strength. Interpretively, this was a fairly straightforward rendition, distinguished though by commendable pacing to the climaxes.

The variation set began with Hodgkinson nobly presenting the theme. He was also especially effective in variation 5, where he offered magically elfin figurations. Although Tchaikovsky’s variations here are not, musically, as deep as Brahms’s, they become richer as they progress, and by and large the players evoked all the warmth, color and compassion the music conveyed. It seemed that at the beginning of the fugal 8th variation there were some wobbles in tone and accuracy, but they were quickly rectified. The strings truly dug into the music, or maybe vice versa: Schmidt and Thomas were shedding bow hairs almost as profligately as they projected notes; the richness of their sound production, though, did not suffer for it. The finale began as a rousing, roaring triumph until it folded back into the elegiac tone (and tune) of the first movement (tempo marking: Lugubre), ending with a stunning hush.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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