Sunday, April 28, 2019

SFP Presents Three Centuries of Piano Trios

Last night in Herbst Theatre San Francisco Performances (SFP) wrapped up its Great Artists and Ensembles Series with the second SFP appearance of the Tetzlaff-Tetzlaff-Vogt Trio, whose members are violinist Christian Tetzlaff, cellist (and Christian’s sister) Tanja Tetzlaff, and pianist Lars Vogt. These three musicians have been playing together at least since they recorded the three published piano trios of Johannes Brahms, an album that was released in the spring of 2015; and they first performed for SFP in February of 2016. The group was originally called the Tetzlaff Trio until critics started commenting that this nomenclature was unfair to Vogt!

The plan for the program reminded me of the major impact of the Beaux Arts Trio on my appreciation of piano trio music. Indeed, when Decca released Beaux Arts 60, a 60-CD box set covering all of the recordings that trio made on the Phillips label, in July of 2015 (shortly after the release of the Tetzlaff-Tetzlaff-Vogt Brahms album), the collection was rather neatly divided into three sections, which roughly corresponded to the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Last night’s program similarly covered all three centuries (but not in chronological order); and (no surprise) all of the selections had previously been recorded by Beaux Arts.

Thus, from my personal point of view, last night was rather an experience of a torch being passed. It was also a reminder that there is no such thing as a “definitive” performance of a musical composition. For all the joy I had derived from Beaux Arts both in recital and on recording, there was a freshness that Tetzlaff-Tetzlaff-Vogt brought to the music of the representative composers for each of those three centuries: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (K. 502 in B-flat major) for the eighteenth, Antonín Dvořák (Opus 65 in F minor) for the nineteenth, and Dmitri Shostakovich (Opus 67 in E minor) for the twentieth. Each of these selections had its own characteristic approach to expressiveness, and the only unifying factor came from the elegant precision and attentiveness that all three performers brought to their acts of making music.

Indeed, the Mozart selection was memorable on several accounts that were somewhat extra-musical ones. Unless I am mistaken, this was the first time I ever saw Vogt smile from his position behind the keyboard; and, by the time the three-movement trio had completed, those smiles had erupted into more overt expressions of enthusiastic joy. In that context I was reminded of the elegant wit that Tetzlaff had brought to Mozart’s K. 216 (third) violin concerto in G major when he played the solo part with the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall a little over a month ago.

Finally, there was the prevailing rhetorical mood. It is one of those truths “universally acknowledged” (thank you, Jane Austen) that anything Mozart ever wrote for keyboard was all about Mozart showing off his prodigious technical skills. Those smiles suggested that Vogt was taking a good-humored approach to Mozart’s “show-off kid” attitude, almost treating the trio as a concerto for piano and very small orchestra. In that spirit the Tetzlaff siblings played along with the game, injecting their own thematic comments when appropriate and establishing the significance of their contributions without every trying to upstage the keyboard action. This led off the evening with a good-natured start, which happened to be the only major-key composition on the program.

The entire second half was devoted to the nineteenth century with the third of Dvořák’s four piano trios. Readers may recall that the prevailing affective characteristics for the key of F minor are “Deep depression, funereal lament, groans of misery and longing for the grave;” but those characteristics will not be found in Dvořák’s Opus 65 trio. Instead, Dvořák uses the minor mode to realize intensely churning energy, a far more positive sense of vigor whose minor thirds have more do to with modal folk qualities than with any depressive nature.

That nature, instead, provided the foundation for the Shostakovich E minor trio, which preceded the intermission break. Opus 67 is one of his most depressing compositions, embodying a weariness with the duration of World War II that was bringing him to the brink of despair. Thus, even with its minor key, the Dvořák trio enabled the audience to get out from under Shostakovich’s dark clouds and recover a more positive outlook on the world.

Nevertheless, the Shostakovich trio was the centerpiece of the evening, as much in spirit as in the ordering of the program. From the very first sonorities of eerie upper harmonics (realized by barely touching the string at critical nodal points), thick clouds of darkness settled over the entire Herbst interior. There were occasional efforts to seek out a livelier and more positive rhetoric, but each attempt was beaten back into the darkness. Even Shostakovich’s familiar use of chorale rhetoric in the third (Largo) movement seemed to have more to do with reminders of the grave rather than with praise of the heavenly.

Indeed, that chorale amounts to an “overture” that leads to the dark despair of the final movement. The Allegretto theme (which could easily have had its roots in klezmer) was (as the program book observes) supposedly “inspired by accounts that the Nazis had forced Jews to dance on their graves [which the Jews themselves had dug] before execution.” As the movement progresses, the theme becomes more obsessive; and each return statement is more agonizing than its predecessor. In other words, this was music that was clearly “about” one of the darkest truths of World War II; and Shostakovich’s ability to convey that “aboutness” without shortchanging his fundamental compositional skills puts Opus 67 in the running for those who like to single out “the greatest chamber music of the twentieth century.”

It is therefore understandable that, when it came to taking an encore for the evening, violinist Tetzlaff announced that the music would be dedicated to the victims of the shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in San Diego County yesterday morning. That selection was the third of the six Dumka movements that constitute Dvořák’s Opus 90 (“Dumky”) trio. Dvořák was drawn to this form for the depicting of sharply contrasting emotional dispositions, and the contrasts of this music took on particular poignancy in its association with yesterday’s tragic event and the extent to which that event is yet another “brick in the wall” of a much broader and sinister context.

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