Local clarinetist Tom Rose has been giving chamber music recitals in San Francisco for as long as I have been writing about chamber music (and probably longer than that). He usually performs with pianist Miles Graber, and I have heard him give several trio recitals with a number of different cellists. His latest trio is called The Berkeley Trio; and the cellist is Krisanthy Desby, noted on this site as the founder for Strobe, which adds an oboe to the usual string quartet resources. (The group’s name is a mash-up of the nouns “strings” and “oboe.”) Yesterday afternoon The Berkeley Trio gave a recital in the Old First Concerts (O1C) series at Old First Presbyterian Church.
The program spanned from the late eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth, consisting of four compositions played in chronological order. The earliest of these was also one of Ludwig van Beethoven’s early chamber compositions, his Opus 11 trio in B-flat major, composed in 1797. Beethoven was probably thinking in terms of advancing his career, since the use of woodwinds in chamber music was still regarded as a novelty (probably known best thanks to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart); and, as a result, such music tended to draw audiences.
Like Mozart, Beethoven appreciated the wide range of expressiveness the clarinet could achieve through different registers. He also recognized that, through its sonorities, the instrument could be very assertive, a quality that could be put to use in the service of that exercise of wit that Beethoven had picked up from his teacher, Joseph Haydn. Opus 11 is thus a sunny piece, even in its middle Adagio movement; and that quality was clearly evident in yesterday’s performance.
Nevertheless, the modern clarinet has a tendency to assert itself far more strongly than its eighteenth-century ancestors. As was recently observed, the instruments frequency spectrum has “an edge sharp enough to cut through almost anything.” Fortunately, Rose knew how to keep his sonorities under control and blended excellently with Graber’s short-stick playing. On the other hand Desby does not yet seem to have summoned up sufficient moxie to meet these two players on their agreed-upon levels of dynamics. Given that some of Beethoven’s best writing in this trio was for the cello, the result was a disappointing account, even if it was clearly seeking out its own individual approach to Beethoven’s imaginative rhetoric.
Even so, the Beethoven performance emerged as the high point of the afternoon. His trio was followed by a D minor trio that composer Mikhail Glinka called “Trio Pathètique.” This was scored for clarinet, piano, and either bassoon or cello. The trio was composed in 1832 during the time Glinka spent at the Milan Conservatory studying composition. Milan, of course, is the home of La Scala; so it should be no surprise that Glinka was subjected to generous exposure to the operas of Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti. (To set some historical context, 1831 was the year in which Norma was premiered at La Scala.)
It would probably be unfair to call “Trio Pathètique” a “bel canto” trio; but the clarinet line does an impressive job of capturing vocal qualities. On the other hand it is clear that engaging tunes take priority over the sorts of thematic development that the listener had just encountered in music written when Beethoven was still at journeyman level. As a result the trio is in four relatively short movements, each of which does very little more than just state its themes and then move on to the next movement. The result is somewhat like an opera with all the mood and none of the narrative; but, considering the durations of most of those bel canto operas, Glinka’s brevity can definitely be taken as a virtue.
The intermission was followed by Paul Juon’s four-movement Trio Miniatures suite. Each movement is an arrangement of an earlier solo piano composition, three from the Opus 18 set and the last from the Opus 24 set. Juon scored the arrangements for piano trio but allowed for the replacement of the violin with a clarinet and the replacement of the cello with a viola.
If Glinka’s brevity tended to feel short-sighted, Juon’s was right on the money. His sources dated from the early twentieth century; but, because he had been born in Russia (albeit to Swiss parents), there was a uniqueness to his rhetoric that led Sergei Rachmaninoff to describe him as “the Russian Brahms.” Through yesterday’s performance the attentive listener could appreciate the traditions into which Juon had been born and his own efforts to find his own unique voice within those traditions.
More disappointing was the final selection, Robert Muczynski’s Opus 26 “Fantasy” trio. Each of the four movements was given a highly expressive tempo marking, but the music itself came off feeling as if it was doing little more than ambling. Muczynski was clearly trying to do far more than bring bel canto to chamber music, but his results never really rose to the level of his ambitions. However, if the conclusion of the program was disappointing, one could still leave with some satisfying memories of the efforts of at least two of the previous composers.