“Our Human Condition,” Boston Artists Ensemble’s March 12th concert at St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brookline, got underway with cellist Jonathan Miller, violinist Sharan Leventhal, and pianist Randall Hodgkinson, in Beethoven’s Trio op. 70 no 1, “Ghost.” The players took tight control of the wild ride that is the first movement, providing the dynamic contrasts and rhythmic articulation the composer demands, while conveying multiple moods with bravura success.
Jan Swafford states in his Beethoven biography that the slow movement (Largo assai ed expressive) “set the mark for weird and uncanny.” The songfulness of the violin, the shimmering of the piano and the weightiness of the cello made possible the ease with which drastically different ideas poured forth. After we hear the dominant motif one final time in the violin, repeated 64th notes in both strings accompany a long chromatic descent in the piano. Finally the three instruments poignantly agree that all is lost, and they end the piece quietly on the single tonic note.
The final movement of the Trio, Presto, returns us to “normalcy.” A jaunty four-measure theme and response more or less follows Classical sonata form. The three sailed effortlessly through this movement, trading places of prominence or accompaniment as the music required.
A “mystery” piano trio followed the Ghost. Audience members submitted their guesses as to composer, date or anything about the piece. Those who guessed correctly received free tickets to one of next year’s BAE concerts. The single movement possessed the grace and self-assuredness of the High Classical Era. What turned out to be Beethoven’s Allegretto for Piano Trio, WoO 39, composed for the ten-year-old daughter of one of his aristocratic patrons, constituted a perfect foil to the brooding intensity of the Ghost.
Ayano Ninomiya, first violin; and Stephanie Fong, viola joined the above three in the Shostakovich Piano Quintet. The first two movements, Prelude and Fugue, make a clear reference to Bach. In the slow-paced Fugue, the string players maintained equilibrium throughout, each instrument showcasing its character while maintaining the phrasing and articulation of the fugue subject. We found the viola’s first entrance and two-thirds of the way through, the first violin’s final statement of the full subject exquisitely touching. Typical of Shostakovich was the juxtaposition of the lowest and highest available instrumental registers. Pianist Randall Hodgkinson reveled in the held low D sharp at the end of the movement. Transformation of the fugal subject leads away from the original material, but results in strong emotional impact.
Scherzo third movement starts off playfully with scalar motifs and repeated notes. The first violin brings in a folk theme that is tossed about with wild abandon. The piano provides comic relief with 16th-note flourishes. Somehow it all comes together with a final parade on the tonic. A slow Intermezzo, songful and relatively straightforward, allowed the audience to enjoy the individual strengths of each instrument. The Intermezzo ends at the extreme registers of the piano and violin.
A small number of musical elements define the Finale. One is a running 16th-note scale figure in the piano, heard first in m. 6. Another is a rising and falling figure in the violins. The two act as foils for one another, and as in the first movement, the material naturally divides between piano and strings. After a triumphant march the original material returns. The dominant string motif forms the basis of a disarming and charming coda.
The repertoire fully embodied BAE’s concert title, “Our Human Condition.” Beethoven disclosed agony due to personal tragedy beyond his control. Shostakovich depicted the suffering of the individual at the hands of the totalitarian state, yet both knew that the bleak messages had to be tempered with some levity. The audience showed gratitude for the emotional richness of these works and the engaged and expert interpretations.
Retired medical biology researcher Dinah Bodkin is a serious amateur pianist and mother of Groupmuse founder Sam Bodkin.