Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The beauty of the Beaux Arts

Above is a Youtube video of the Beaux Arts Trio, recorded by a cellphone in Berlin, playing part of a Haydn trio (which served as an encore at last week's Celebrity Series concert in Jordan Hall). The clip gives you some idea, despite the low-fidelity sound, of what makes the group so special: its sense of "serious joy," as someone I know once put it. That joyful noise echoed more somberly this time around, as the trio is on its farewell tour, but spirits onstage were as high as ever: indeed Menahem Pressler, founding pianist and acknowledged "soul" of the group (for lack of a better word), despite playing for more than half a century with the trio, seemed as committed as ever to its supple, transparent sound. As the lone commenter on the Youtube video put it, "Menahem Pressler rocks."

Not that the Trio's younger members, Antonio Meneses on cello and Daniel Hope on violin (at left, on either side of Pressler) hung back in the shadows - Hope brought a spry verve to what amounted to a kind of tugging dialogue with Pressler, and if Meneses seemed a bit more reserved, he nonetheless played with a mature, intelligent polish that perhaps even more closely complemented the founder's touch. And said touch is still a marvel - Pressler's 84-year-old fingers utterly bely their age, with an agile yet tender attack that seemed to somehow scatter aural pearls from the piano. (It was Hope's plans for a solo career, not Pressler's desire for retirement, that led to the decision to disband the group.)

The ensemble's final offerings were Schubert's two trios, the B-Flat Major and E-Flat Major (which includes the famous Andante con moto heard in Kubrick's Barry Lyndon) and a premiere from György Kurtág, Work for piano trio. The Schuberts tended to ramble, as Schubert often does, but the trio took both at thoughtful pace, and if they didn't fully cohere, so what - both were played with articulate, observant passion (the E-flat's melancholy themes were in particular warmer than in most versions). I was less taken with the compacted, lyrically minimal Kurtág, which was a series of lost, mournful sighs from the strings, drifting over chiming chords from the piano - like much of Kurtág, it seemed to evoke the postwar existentialism of Beckett without extending it. The trio helpfully played it twice (it's under three minutes long); perhaps further contemplation might, indeed, unlock a harrowing internality like that we associate with the great playwright.

When time came for the encores, however, it was clear the Beaux Arts had saved the best for last. All three were riveting, and all three were in utterly different modes. Shostakovich's "Devil's Scherzo" was pure, fiendish fire, with that edge of horrific glee so characteristic of the great Russian; a movement from Haydn (above) was a jubilant romp; and a final encore from Dvořák's Dumky Trio made a lovely farewell. Then there were the last, exuberant bows, and then silence. All three will keep playing, of course (we'll be able to hear Pressler at Tanglewood this summer, in fact), but it's hard to fight a certain melancholy at the thought that the sound of the Beaux Arts is now stilled.

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