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Velvety Tones

Farewell American performances by the Beaux Arts Trio
and an Amernet String Quartet recital,


For over half a century the Beaux Arts Trio has been a chamber music legend. From the very first performance in 1955 at Tanglewood (amidst the glorious Berkshire mountains and hills), pianist Menahem Pressler has been the group's artistic heart and soul. This ensemble's mellifluous sound and perfectly blended sonorities have flourished despite numerous changes of personnel. Over the years Pressler's colleagues have included violinists Daniel Guilet, Isidore Cohen, Ida Kavafian and Young Uck Kim and cellists Bernard Greenhouse and Peter Wiley -- a formidable group of musicians. Yet the pianist's partnership with violinist Daniel Hope and cellist Antonio Meneses may be the finest collaboration in the trio's storied history. The instrumental perfection and musical subtlety of this threesome has been an artistic wonder.

In recent seasons Daniel Hope's career has taken off. This violinist is in great demand as a soloist and chamber music player. A versatile and creative artist, Hope has also published his first book and has made initial appearances as an orchestral conductor. When he announced that he was leaving the trio, Pressler and Meneses concluded that he could not be replaced. Appropriately the Beaux Arts threesome returned to Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, USA for their final American appearances on 20 and 21 August 2008 -- two magical evenings of great music making.

Throughout the two farewell concerts Pressler remained a true magician of the keyboard, offering pianism of exquisite purity. Hope's dulcet tones did not preclude bursts of virtuoso brilliance. Meneses' richly sonorous cello resounded in heartfelt passion and pathos.

On 20 August the wood paneled interior of Seiji Ozawa Hall provided the perfect atmosphere for a bona fide event. Dvorák's Trio in E minor (Dumky) Op 90, a Beaux Arts signature piece, opened the evening in suitably aristocratic fashion. The group's exquisitely phrased, sensitive rendition gave equal measure to the score's angelic felicities as well as Bohemian fire.

The Piano Trio by the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag (born 1926) was commissioned by the Concertgebouw for the Beaux Arts Trio. Kurtag, a methodical perfectionist, produced only one movement at that time, promising to eventually complete two additional movements. The ensemble premièred the first movement in Amsterdam and has continually kept the piece in its active repertoire. Kurtag just delivered the second section so the trio gave the première at the 20 August concert (along with the original movement). Will Pressler reconvene the trio when the third movement arrives?

Kurtag's two brief movements recall Anton Webern in their softness and brevity. Yet this iconoclastic composer conveys a mood of contemplative stasis. The Beaux Arts players brought ethereal hues to these two Zen inspired miniatures.

Ravel's sensuous Trio in A minor provided an exhilarating conclusion, the players channeling the score's hypnotic lyricism. Hope's lustrous tone and lyrical grace brought gorgeous nuances to the Passacaille (Tres large). The concluding Anime danced with scintillating verve; the musicians' velvety tones ever a delight.

If the Beaux Arts' first program was exceptional, the following evening (21 August) proved unforgettable -- one of those rare concerts that remain in the mind's ear long after the music has ceased. The ensemble playing was even more seamlessly integrated; the timbres ever more beguiling.

Two piano trios of Franz Schubert were the historic evening's bill of fare. The breezy Trio No 1 in B flat Op 99 received a dashing reading, at once silky and wonderfully characterful. Hope and Meneses embraced the soaring cantabile line of the second movement Andante con poco mosso. The Scherzo seemed to dance off the keyboard under the feathery lightness of Pressler's magic touch. A boldly vivacious reading of the Rondo capped a sparkling traversal of this engaging score.

The Piano Trio in E flat Op 100 is darker and more foreboding. Both works date from 1827, the year before the composer's tragically early death; yet the E flat trio seems to inhabit another world. The players approached the opening Allegro emphatically. This was high drama with super voltage playing to match. Pressler's power and the huge tonal compass of the string players channeled tremendous velocity. One of the most moving, poignant movements in the chamber music literature must be this trio's Andante con moto. Meneses' incomparable phrasing and honeyed resonance shaped this glorious music eloquently.

The impeccably stylish players brought Vienesse lilt and bubbly élan to the Scherzando, the calm before the storm. Powerhouse pianism and incisive, soaring strings anchored the stormy Allegro moderato finale. This movement can often seem diffuse and fragmented in lesser hands; but the Beaux Arts threesome's tightly wound performance captured the long line and lieder like intimacy of this emotional work; music tinged with tragedy and hope.

A long standing, cheering ovation brought three generous encores. The Scherzo from Shostakovich's Piano Trio emerged fast and furious with overwhelming emotion. Pressler's hands flew across the keyboard at lightning pace. By contrast, the Rondo from Beethoven's Piano Trio No 1 was all lithe, graceful charm; playing of tremendous virtuosity with winsome high spirits.

Following the Beethoven, Pressler introduced a special guest in the packed house -- Bernard Greenhouse, the original cellist of the Beaux Arts Trio over a half century ago. Of course cheers and bravos rang out profusely. In Greenhouse's honor, the trio repeated the slow movement of Dvorák's Dumky from the previous evening's program. This time Meneses (perhaps inspired by his colleague's presence) played with even more gorgeous, singing tone, shaping Dvorák's haunting melody with moving lyrical expansiveness. Finally Pressler, the anchor of this touchstone ensemble for its entire history, took a solo bow. A fond farewell indeed!

A strikingly beautiful, emotionally probing new string quartet received its première on 26 August 2008 by the stellar Amernet String Quartet at the intimate auditorium of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Stephen Dankner is a prolific composer whose catalogue includes numerous orchestral and chamber music scores. Dankner has been composer-in-residence for the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra in New Orleans and is a faculty member at Williams College. His String Quartet No 9 is both lyrically effusive and astringent; a skillful confection of modernist techniques tempered by an outpouring of lyrical melodies in the vein of Samuel Barber.

High drama pervades Dankner's elongated opening Allegro molto appassionato. The Gallic spirit of Ravel infuses the elegantly tailored Tempo di valse lent. A lively Vivace (third movement) is enchantingly light as a feather. None of the preceding movements prepares the listener for the moving, autumnally sad Adagio finale. Dankner has fashioned music of tremendous strength and emotional power. The composer was present to acknowledge the audience's enthusiastic response.

The Amernet Quartet (resident ensemble at Miami's Florida International University and former faculty quartet in residence at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music) has played many of Dankner's chamber music scores. Their intense, smoothly coordinated performance was a composer's dream.

The Amernet foursome (Misha Vitenson and Marcia Littley, violins; Michael Klotz, viola; and Javier Arias, cello) are a superb ensemble -- a vibrant, brilliant 21st century quartet. Their high precision reading of Schubert's rarely heard Quartet in E flat Op 125 No 1 was a deft opener. The Allegro finale was dashed off with effervescent brio.

Dvorák's gloriously melodic String Quartet in E flat Op 51 was a total delight in the Amernet's energetic, finely honed performance. From the Furiant-like opening movement to the sublime yearning of the Dumka, the group played with probing conviction. Klotz's warmly burnished viola, Arias' rich cello tone and the sensuous violin sound of Vitenson and Littley soared in the incandescent Czech Romanze: Andante con moto. The dizzying Allegro assai finale was dashed off with bravura to spare.

Repeated curtain calls brought a delightful encore souflee -- two of Shostakovich's piano preludes, transcribed by Vitenson's father. Effervescent bon-bons, played with elegance and sophistication. Presenting an interesting, adventurous program, the Amernet Quartet offered a capital evening of great chamber music!

Copyright © 22 September 2008 Lawrence Budmen, Miami Beach, USA


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