talent: Julia Fischer.
Biss, piano, Julia Fischer, violin, and Daniel Müller-Schott,
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
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.