in: Reviews

October 28, 2014

An Elder Communes with the Up-And-Coming

by

Beiulman and Guaneri (Bertazzi photo)

Beilman and Guarneri (Bertazzi photo)

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center dispatched the eminent and not-so-young-any-more pianist Gilbert Kalish along with two youngsters, violinist Benjamin Beilman, and cellist Julie Albers, to the Gardner Museum for a concert on Sunday. Without intermission, they played the Op. 96, G major sonata for piano and violin by Beethoven, and the Dvořák Piano Trio in F Minor, Op. 65. It was, as they say, a richly rewarding afternoon.

Beethoven composed his last of 10 sonatas for piano and violin in 1812 at the age of 42. As its opus number suggests, it forms a musical bridge between his “middle” and “late” periods. Written for the Archduke Rudolph and premiered by Pierre Rode, the eminent French violin virtuoso who had recently arrived in Vienna, it includes a virtuoso passage that appears rather suddenly in the fourth movement that some suggest was inserted to enable the fiddler to show off. Nevertheless, when it comes to playing all the notes, it may be the easiest of his sonatas technically, but it’s by no means simple musically, and it’s fascinating to hear how differently it’s played by major artists. Lockwood sums it up perfectly as a “reflective, lyrical and subtle” work. I was accompanied by a youngster yet to reach her teens and unaccustomed to classical music. She remarked at the end, “The piano and the violin seemed to be chatting with each other.”

And indeed, Kalish and Beilman chatted. The ensemble was terrific, aided by the Calderwood Hall layout which had the violinist facing the pianist. But the two protagonists spoke differently. Kalish was the leader, conducting with his forehead, with Beilman always in step. Kalish’s play was crystalline, balanced, and sprightly. His solo introduction to the slow movement, filled with dynamic subtlety and barely noticeable but elegant rubato, was breathtaking. Beilman is a striking young violinist, and I foresee a brilliant future for him. He has unusual mastery of left hand finger articulation and of the long, slow bow, and he varies his vibrato and sound widely as the music demands. He can generate a huge volume, but he’s not afraid to whisper. His playing is unusual in that he varies between a lyrical, story-telling side (à la Joshua Bell, or Isabelle Faust) and a more architectural, sculptured type of playing (à la Stern or Szigeti). Constantly moving and swaying gently, but without the distracting histrionics that some players adopt, he tells a story that draws the listener in. But when he gets to a section that asks for in your face demonstration, such as the “Rode variation,” he holds his fiddle up, digs in, and the sparks fly. I could see him as an eminent chamber musician in the future, or as a well-loved soloist. His is an enormous talent. Don’t miss his next visit.

For my ears, the duo ended up with a novel approach to this sonata. There are superb recordings by Orkis and Mutter (on YouTube here), and by Argerich and Kremer (YouTube here), who are of the school of, “We’ll show you how different we are from everyone else…“side of the spectrum: some liberties with Beethoven’s markings, quite a few starts and stops, but overall highly satisfying. Then there are Hess and Stern, or Arrau and Szigeti: more “by the book,” but wonderful for their rhythmic vitality and clarity. Overall, Kalish and Beilman chose a middle ground which was fine indeed.

I don’t know if the programmers realized it, but Dvořák’s Piano Trio was also written by a 42-year-old. Despite the birth of his son that year, it was a difficult time for the Bohemian composer. His mother had just died (interesting how often commentators note a mother’s death as triggering a great work by her son…witness the Brahms Requiem, for starters). And, as Richard E. Rodda’s fine program notes point out, he was torn between allegiance to his Czech musical roots and the flattering acclaim he was receiving from Johannes Brahms and the Germanic establishment.

This work appears to reflect these pulls. It is in some respects Beethovenesque (Alex Ross in his intriguing recent New Yorker piece opines that virtually everything after Beethoven was influenced, at times to a fault, by the Great Man). It’s also Brahmsian, but it’s also filled with Dvořák, particularly the Scherzo which reminds us that Bohemians really knew how to dance. It’s weighty. More than 40 minutes, and the slow movement is almost painful in its moody intensity. It’s one of those works that demands repeated attention; the Dumky grabs the listener immediately and dances by; this one is thorny, knotted, tough going, but well worth it.

For this work, Julie Albers completed the trio. Now she faced the pianist, with the fiddler facing her but with his back to the piano (It didn’t matter; Beilman has an amazingly flexible neck, and it was cocked to the left throughout, thereby to watch his pianist. He either can turn one pupil to the left, and the other to the right where his score was, or he had virtually memorized the work). Albers is a fine chamber artist; when Dvořák asked her to take the lead, she was elegant and compelling. Again the ensemble was first class, with musical impulses much in line. But even though Albers faced me and Beilman played away from me, her sound didn’t project well, and combined with the enormous, glittery, topless Steinway, the balance was not optimal. Kalish is more comfortable perhaps in Beethoven. He didn’t find the warm sweep that nourishes the Czech composer, and the Scherzo was a bit lumbering. But overall, we were treated to a fine performance of a relatively seldom-heard masterwork.

One problem: when it came to projection and beauty of sound, Beilman had an entirely unfair advantage over his fellow string player. He’s the fortunate steward of a great Guarneri del Gesu, created in 1735, about the same time as Fritz Kreisler’s. It has the prototypical del Gesu sound: creamy, an amazing G string, and a sparkle that carries it through the hall effortlessly. Albers plays a French cello made by the younger brother of Vuillaume, the 19th-century French copyist (he loved to copy del Gesu violins) and entrepreneur. It does well, but next time she plays with Beilman, I’d love to hear her play on a grand old Italian. I don’t much care that a double blind study suggests that instruments sound mostly alike. Ask Beilman if he’d like to swap out his Guarneri.

Finally, a question for Calderwood veterans: With the benefit now of several years of experimentation, where should one choose to sit? This novice found it bewildering, and I had a strong impulse, albeit unrealized, to stroll around and up and down.

Tom Delbanco is the Koplow-Tullis Professor of General Medicine and Primary Care at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital. An avid violinist since age nine, he has particular interest in the evolution of stringed instruments from the 16th century on.

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