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Youthful talent: Julia Fischer.

One Night Only


By B.A. Nilsson

Jonathan Biss, piano, Julia Fischer, violin, and Daniel Müller-Schott, cello

Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, July 16

Add the ages of these players and you don’t come near to breaking three figures. The three figures on stage, however, performed a delightful program with the finesse of seasoned hands and an enthusiasm befitting their youthfulness.

In fact, there was something of a tug of war between these tendencies, exemplified in the opening of Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio, the big piece on the program. The work begins with a piano-solo declaration of a stately, plaintive theme, and there’s a huge temptation, rarely resisted, to “interpret” it: typically consisting of using the first four notes to creep up on the tempo. The theme sounds much better without any fooling with it, but then it may appear that the performers aren’t doing their jobs.

There’s a parallel in theater wherein actors feel compelled to “interpret” text with phony sobs and inappropriate pauses, unaware that the most effective interpretation comes from honesty and, therefore, transparency.

Taking this back to Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio, I’m suggesting that a comfortable tempo should be established right off the bat—and leave that second theme alone! The very nature of it—a jaunty four-note figure that dances to different pitches—tells you to keep it in tempo.

Pianist Jonathan Biss took the lead in establishing those interpretive nuances, and managed to get those extra caresses in as the themes initially were stated. But once the players dug into the piece and the energy surged, they weren’t so inclined to linger. I’m suspecting that a commendable exuberance pointed the way to a more transparent interpretation, and the more they succumbed, the better the Beethoven sounded.

I’m nitpicking. They didn’t leave much room for criticism. Each of these players is pursuing a solo career, but with an unusual amount of chamber music attached. Pianist Jonathan Biss (who has the most entertaining bio in the business) will be performing the “Archduke” with a different duo next month, and goes on to a Mozart concerto. Cellist Daniel Müller-Schott just soloed in the Brahms Double Concerto, and violinist Julia Fischer’s appearances have been highlights of recent Union College Concerto Series programs.

There’s a passionate comfort in performances by long-established ensembles. But a pickup trio of soloists can bring its own special energy to the music, and that this would be the case here was evident from the first number, a duo for violin and cello.

It’s a set of variations on a stately Handel theme written by the otherwise-forgotten Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen, and in the best tradition of such works, it throws increasing challenges to the players.

Which they swatted out of the park. The lickety-split tempo they chose for the opening promised fireworks, the brilliantly executed spiccato bowing, the nasty ponticello effect in the thirteenth variation—all as deft and musical as could be expected. Although the too-fast start to the final variation presaged a train wreck, Fischer and Müller-Schott proved to have it well under control.

You know this was a conservative program when Ravel’s Duo for Violin and Cello is the most radical piece. Of course, it was a departure for the composer, who never sounded leaner. The instruments are used to excellent effect, starting with a seven-note motif tossed between the two. The tempo changes, the sounds come even more alive (wonderfully suited to a Tanglewood summer evening) as each of the four movements explores not only contrasting thematic material but the many sounds that violin and cello can produce, from thick-textured chords to ethereal harmonics. A touch of gypsy fiddling set off the second movement; the third featured a long Baroque-like line for the cello, and the finale gave us a quick tour of those many moods again.

Then it was on to the Beethoven with the full ensemble. Some highlights were the jazzy pizzicato-filled development section of the first movement, played with appropriate sparkle, and the beautiful slow movement (remember it from the film The Man Who Wasn’t There?), with a set of variations that sound unusually happy given the theme’s melancholy.

I picture a chamber music class in which the players are instructed to be sensitive to every emotional nuance, and I imagine this performance as something of a rebellion. The emotion was there—it usually takes care of itself, and benefits from the excitement of such fantastic players.

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