Sunday, April 30, 2017

Morgenstern Trio Makes an Impressive, if Conventional, Debut

Last night in Herbst Theatre, Chamber Music San Francisco (CMSF) presented the San Francisco debut of the Morgenstern Trio. This German ensemble consists of pianist Catherine Klipfel, violinist Stefan Hempel, and cellist Emanuel Wehse and was formed when they were students at the Folkwang Conservatory in Essen. They named their group after the German poet Christian Morgenstern, best known for his bizarre sense of wit and nonsense that took on German grammar in his poem “Der Werwolf” and whose “The Night Song of the Fish” consists entirely of the two symbols used to notate metrical stress patterns arranged in an elegantly intricate symmetrical design. (For the record Sofia Gubaidulina scored this for mezzo, flute, percussion, bayan (Russian accordion), and bass in her 1996 Galgenlieder à 5.)

The trio’s reputation in the United States was reinforced by their winning the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio Award in 2010. Since then they have toured a prodigious number of American cities, so it is about time that they finally graced San Francisco with a visit. They prepared a meat-and-potatoes program of Joseph Haydn, Felix Mendelssohn, and Johannes Brahms (played in chronological order). While there were no surprises in the repertoire, I realized that my personal experiences of listening to performances by the trio of pianist Joseph Kalichstein, violinist Jaime Laredo, and cellist Sharon Robinson covered two-thirds of the program.

To this day I still have fond memories of how the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan celebrated the sesquicentenary of the birth of Johannes Brahms (born in 1833) with a marathon series of concerts covering all of his chamber music for piano and strings. The performances involved a partnership between the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio and the Guarneri Quartet; and that was the occasion when I really began to appreciate the qualities of Brahms’ chamber music. I was thus delighted with the Morgenstern Trio’s decision to conclude their program with Brahms’ Opus 8 (first) trio in B major. Ironically, the only Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson recording I have is their CD of the two Mendelssohn piano trios, meaning that I was familiar with how this group approached the second piece on their program, the Opus 66 (second) trio in C minor; and my “KLR” experience remains with me whenever I encounter a new interpretation.

Indeed, the Mendelssohn trio has become a yardstick for me when it comes to addressing matters of performance that go beyond merely getting all of its many notes right. The cellist Bonnie Hampton liked to talk about Mendelssohn’s tendency to burn his candle at both ends, and that metaphor would often arise when she was coaching performances of Opus 66. So much is packed into this piece’s four movements that a naive approach to playing it often results in exhaustion before reaching the final movement. As Pierre Boulez put it, this is music in which the performers need a clear sense of where they want the significant climaxes to be to make sure that they are not overwhelmed by “lesser peaks.”

By the conclusion of the first movement last night, it was clear that the Morgenstern knew which of the several peaks warranted pride of place; and they knew exactly how to modulate their energy levels to make sure that that particular peak was distinguished by something extra. Furthermore, they knew just as well how to extend that logic over all four movement of the trio. This is no easy matter, considering how many different stops Mendelssohn pulls out in the final movement, where are any number of viable candidates for the “highest peak” in the entire trio. The Morgenstern clearly had a well-defined opinion of where that peak was; and their sense of overall climax in this piece was impressively convincing, even if their precision was not always quite up to their tempo decisions.

Equally satisfying was their approach to Brahms. This was the trio that Brahms composed early in his career that almost literally overflowed with more developmental techniques than he could manage. He completed the score in 1854, and it was his first piece of instrumental ensemble chamber music. However, in 1891 near the end of his life, he realized that the composition had been unduly burdened by excess; and he eliminated that excess in preparing a revised version of the score. That latter version is the one we know today, the original having only academic interest.

Here, again, the Morgenstern performed with a clear sense of a “landscape of climaxes” and an intricate network of relationships between wholes and parts. The piano was, of course, Brahms’ own primary instrument; and it was not difficult to fantasize that Klipfel was channeling Brahms in her keyboard technique. What was most impressive, however, was how she could deftly shift between those overly broad strokes for which Brahms is so well known and the more sensitive phrases that weave their way among the lines for the string parts. Opus 8 has deservedly earned warhorse status in the chamber music repertoire; but, while it may have been familiar for much (if not most) of the audience, the Morgenstern still knew how to endow their performance with the freshness of a “first encounter” experience.

The program began with Haydn’s Hoboken XV/10 trio in E-flat major, the third of the Opus 44 trios published in 1785. This was written relatively late in Haydn’s career of service at Eszterháza, and it was a time when he enjoyed getting away for visits to Vienna. (He had probably met Mozart for the first time in Vienna in 1784.) There is an intimate playfulness to this trio, which consists of only two movements, “first” and “last” movements without any intervening adagio or dance movement. According to H. C. Robbins Landon, this trio comes from a time when Haydn was losing interest in the solo piano sonata and wanted to explore its relations to other instruments. Thus, one encounters some of his sonata style in the piano part; but one can also detect ventures into new ground if one knows where to look.

This made for an excellent “means of introduction” for the Morgenstern. One could appreciate both Klipfel’s piano technique and the meticulous sense of balance consistently maintained by all three players. Similarly, one could enjoy their establishing themselves through a thoroughly well-wrought composition that never seems to get very much attention but clearly deserves it. Given the stormy accounts of Mendelssohn and Brahms that would ensue, the quiet wit of this music provided just the right context in which the attentive listener could settle in to prepare for the more adventurous experiences that would follow.

Those adventures would continue into the encore selection, the second (“Pantoum”) movement from Maurice Ravel’s 1914 piano trio. This movement is distinguished for its eccentric approach to rhythm that makes the almost clockwork technique for the keyboard part dazzle when properly executed. Klipfel’s execution last night could not be faulted, nor could be the broad-stroke gestures evoked by the strings executed by Hempel and Wehse. After an all-Germanic program, the encounter with Ravel was a refreshing one; and one could appreciate that the performers enjoyed the rhetorical shift as much as this listener did.

In introducing the ensemble, CMSF Director Daniel Levenstein explained that he had wanted to bring the Morgenstern to San Francisco for some time. We should all be glad that he succeeded. We should also hope that the wait for their next visit will not be quite as long.

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