Voice of North Carolina
Embarking on a Beethoven Journey with Germany's Abegg Trio
by John W. Lambert
September 7, 2007, Chapel Hill, NC: One summer, during high school, I worked for an expatriate German music lover who lived on Long Island, NY. With help from his Pennsylvania Dutch wife, Frank handled dogs for a living, visiting A.K.C. championship shows. He also talked about — and listened to — music as much as he could. There was plenty to hear in NY then, live and on the radio, too; he had very few recordings because he didn't need them. He was given to reminiscing, as people of a certain age seemed, to these then-young ears, wont to do. In his homeland, as a teenager, he had "collected" the Beethoven symphonies, which he "amassed" by taking the train or in some cases walking to various nearby towns and villages where rare live performances were mounted. When he'd finally heard all nine, he felt his young life was complete.
There were some parallels for a teenager, growing up in NC at the time, although we didn't walk from town to town for concerts. There was the Met on the radio, and WPTF broadcast classical music on its new FM station several times a week. We had some good choirs in the region and our state orchestra and lots of college and university artists (including UNC pianist and teacher William S. Newman) and amateurs, too; there were concerts being offered by the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild and the Chamber Arts Society; and some of the world's greatest orchestras had begun appearing here, thanks to NC State's Friends of the College Series.... Still, it was easy enough to identify with Frank, and indeed it was years before we heard all the Beethoven symphonies here or even all the concerti, for that matter, and never mind all the violin sonatas or all the string quartets. Back then, if you wanted to get to know this music, you pretty much had to read music or rely on records.
Little has changed, although there's a lot less music in the public schools, and fewer and fewer people can play music for themselves, except by turning on the radio or putting on records or CDs. In addition, the flood of outstanding visiting orchestras has dwindled to a paltry trickle, leaving the field to mid-sized regional bands that seek to catapult themselves to importance with unending marketing hype about how great they are — or how great they want to be....
Through it all, however, there were recordings, and many would agree that reliance on them is not at all a bad thing. One can learn a lot by listening, and one can become familiar with vast amounts of repertory that way, thus preparing for those live performances that dot our cultural landscape.
And recordings can serve as calling cards for artists, too, helping them introduce themselves and their art to the public. Thus it was, back in 1999, while writing for Fanfare (in large measure, in order to expand my personal library), that I "discovered" the Abegg Trio, by means of their four CDs devoted to Beethoven's piano trios. These performances were revelations to me, thanks to the superior sound quality of the recordings, the astonishing sonority of the Bösendorfer piano used, the playing of these inspired and inspiring artists, and their interpretations, graced but never occluded by scholarship resulting from years and years of study and performance together.
This last bit may be among the Abegg Trio's most amazing and impressive qualities: for 31 years, the ensemble has performed, mostly in Europe, with never a change in personnel. As a result, the artists — pianist Gerrit Zitterbart, violinist Ulrich Beetz (whose instrument is by Nicholas Lupot, 1821), and cellist Birgit Erichson (Andrea Castagnieri, 1747) — really do "play as one," to borrow a phrase too often bandied about in connection with regional orchestral string sections and the like. Toss in the Abegg Trio's members' individual technical precision, their interpretive excellence, and their long study of these scores, and you've got something truly special. Beethoven's works have in a sense become the ensemble's calling card, for they've played the individual trios numerous times and given the entire cycle, in three or more substantial concerts, 27 times. (They also played these works all in the same day — once — in their 25th anniversary year!) And to state the obvious, if it hadn't been for recordings — CDs — chances are we would never have heard the Abegg Trio over here, in America, since we'd probably never have heard of them.
The Abegg Trio's Beethoven CDs were so remarkable that I started trying to interest chamber music presenters in bringing them to the United States to perform the cycle. But in 1999, there were two major obstacles: the closest Bösendorfer dealer was in Atlanta, too remote to haul one in for a concert; and the artists didn't have US management. They still don't, but their Canadian representative knows the US ropes. And Richard Ruggero now represents Bösendorfer pianos in Raleigh.
When the Abegg Trio performed here (and on the NC coast) the last time, in the spring of 2005, our critics were enthusiastic, so it was logical for the presenter, the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild, to seek a way to get them to come back to America. The die was cast when Duke Performances' Chamber Arts Society and the UNC Music Department's William S. Newman Artists Series agreed to join forces with the Guild to present the Abegg Trio's first full Beethoven cycle in America during the 2007 September Prelude — the Triangle-wide event that marks the real start of the season for chamber music enthusiasts in central North Carolina. (For the record, the Abegg Trio's NC debut took place 20 years ago, at the Reynolda House, in Winston-Salem.)
Thus it was with keen anticipation that we entered UNC's Memorial Hall on the evening of September 7 for the first of these three programs, offered as part of the William S. Newman Artists Series (named in memory of the aforementioned UNC pianist and scholar). On the stage was Carolina Performing Arts' Hamburg Steinway, a fine instrument. (An American Steinway was to be heard at Duke, and a glistening Bösendorfer figured in the final concert, in Raleigh.) The bill of fare in Chapel Hill was unusual in that all the works (including, as it turned out, the encore) were in E-flat: the Variations, Op. 44; the Piano Trios Nos. 1 (Op. 1/1) and 5 (Op. 70/2), and the rarely-heard single-movement Triosatz, Hess 48.
Newman Series coordinator and violinist Richard Luby offered welcoming remarks, and the audience clearly sensed how special was the moment as the artists came onto the stage, acknowledged the applause, and sat down to begin. In a nutshell, the Abegg Trio delivered, in every sense of the word, playing even more brilliantly and with even stronger ensemble than on their recordings. They also observed every sanctioned repeat, thus presenting Beethoven's music as it is not always heard.
Now a lot of water has gone over and through the dam since the Abegg Trio was last in Raleigh, for the musicians have embraced even more than before the "original instruments" movement, and they have made several CDs using historic instruments. (In the mill, indeed, are new recordings of all the Beethoven works for piano trio, including Op. 11 — in both clarinet and violin editions.) These forays into older performance practice have, in turn, informed the ensemble's playing on modern instruments, so the renditions heard in Chapel Hill were, if anything, more refined and often clearer and more cleanly articulated than on those CDs. This demonstrates once again a paramount quality that distinguishes the Abegg Trio from many of its peers: every time they take up a work, no matter how many times they've played it, they go over it as if they were performing it for the very first time. It keeps the music alive and fresh, of course — and it makes hearing the group worthwhile, since every performance possesses slightly different interpretive and technical nuances. Again and again the artists impressed with the beauty of their phrasing and their astonishing ability to match and seamlessly join violin and cello tone (to the point that as lines passed back and forth it was often impossible to tell, except by looking, which string instrument was being played).
Such was the case in Memorial Hall, as the September Prelude series got underway. It was an auspicious beginning, despite some serious problems with the impact of the ensemble in the large auditorium, surely exacerbated by the fact that the artists were fairly far back on the (foreshortened) stage and did not enjoy the added "thrust" that a small, directional shell would have provided. This was however both curse and blessing, for it obliged the audience to listen intently, perhaps even more intently than would otherwise have been the case. One could have heard pins drop during much of the concert — and the listening was richly rewarded as the visitors gave grandly shaded performances. To cite only two examples, the soft, slow movement of Op. 70/2 was, in a word, ethereal, and in contrast the finale of this trio exploded in the hall like a lightning bolt.
Alas however, as would be conclusively demonstrated during the other two concerts, Chapel Hill is, at the moment, in some difficulty with regard to acceptable performance spaces for chamber groups, for Memorial Hall, which is basically ok. for orchestras and bands, is simply too big for small ensembles, and never mind how it looks when the typical Triangle chamber music audience is scattered throughout its 1,400 seats....
The following day brought a chamber music workshop for adult amateurs, coached by leading area professional musicians and capped by masterclasses with the Abegg Trio. Space doesn't permit a full discussion here, but I must note that a recurring theme, repeatedly articulated by all three visiting artists, was the concept of singing, an essential ingredient in superior performances of all kinds of music, instrumental as well as vocal!
Abegg Trio Brings
Beethoven's Piano Trios to Expressive Life
by Martha A. Fawbush
September 9, 2007, Raleigh, NC: A winning combination of instrumental mastery and formidable musicianship characterized the Abegg Trio’s performance of three piano trios of Ludwig van Beethoven: the Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 11 “Gassenhauertrio;” the Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello in c minor, Op. 1, No. 3; and the Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 97 “Archduke.” In this concert, the last of three Triangle programs devoted to Beethoven's complete music for piano trio, the talents of Ulrich Beetz, violin; Birgit Erichson, cello; and Gerrit Zitterbart, piano brought the expressive melodies, inventive harmonies and skillful instrumental writing to life.
Even the most general analysis reveals that the Abegg Trio meets all the musical standards critics apply to determine the worth of a performance. Throughout their Fletcher Opera Theater concert, presented as the finale of this year's September Prelude season-opener and the opening concert of the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild's 66th season, the players maintained impeccable intonation and paid due attention to dynamics. All three were imposing technicians with an ability to meet the musical requirements of any composer.
From beginning to end of this program, these superb instrumentalists played with an ease and a pleasure that belied the difficulty of the music before them and always maintained an ensemble unshaken by musical circumstances. On many occasions during the allegro movements, the dizzying speed in which Beetz and Erichson executed ascending and descending passages showed breathtaking technical mastery, at the same time illustrating their ability to make their instruments sing with one voice. In these movements the playing of both was brilliant yet unbelievably light, as if their bows were barely touching the instruments.
Other illustrations of the players’ attention to ensemble were also apparent in descending unison arpeggios as well as in passages in which the strings sang slow, descending unison lines not clearly distinguishable from each other. Moreover, throughout their performances of all three trios, both players illustrated their understanding of the stylistic touches that were the musical fashion during Beethoven’s early days as pianist and composer. This musical awareness claims the listener’s attention particularly in slow movements in which suspensions in the strings emphasized the expressive nature of phrases and other passages in which lengthy notes swelled from piano to mezzo forte and back in a dazzling, expressive mezzo di voce.
Pianist Zitterbart revealed that his skills are no less admirable than those of his colleagues. His masterful technique allowed him to execute the exciting, rapid scale passages and arpeggios so common in allegro movements, to use his lightest touch to state some of Beethoven’s sweetest, most melancholy melodies, and to evoke in the low registers the dark, melancholy themes in slow movements. His ability to state the thematic material of the slow movements resulted in many of the most beautiful moments a listener encounters in performances of these works. Moreover, his playing is the musical stuff that holds the performance of all three players together and thus makes a great contribution toward maintaining the ensemble. This is particularly obvious in most of the slow movements, in which the piano and strings must state principle thematic material with the same emphasis and tonal color.
The analysis above explains in great part why the Abegg Trio’s audience took such delight in their performance. It remains to add that the players’ delight in performing the music of a great composer and in playing with each other was clearly communicated to the audience from the first notes of the concert through the charming encore — the single-movement Trio in B, WoO 39 — and created a bond that guaranteed mutual pleasure and success for the performers.
& Observer Chapel Hill
Beethoven trios played all in one weekend
Roy C. Dicks, Correspondent
The term "marathon" usually brings to mind athletes or Guinness Book of World Records hopefuls, not classical musicians. Yet it's the right word for this year's "September Prelude," a chamber music event sponsored by UNC's W.S. Newman Series, Duke's Chamber Arts Society and the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild.
The three-day, three-concert schedule boasts all the Beethoven piano trios played by acknowledged masters of the form, the Abegg Trio.
At each concert, including tonight's in UNC's Memorial Hall, Saturday's in Duke's Reynolds Auditorium, and Sunday afternoon's in Raleigh's Fletcher Opera Theater, the Abegg plays a different group of Beethoven piano trios, ranging from early to late, giving each program a balanced overview. Those who attend all three will be afforded a rare opportunity for total immersion in the complete set, considered to be the cornerstone of piano trio literature.
A complete cycle is unusual not only for the Triangle but for major music capitals. There have been no complete cycles of these trios in New York City for more than a decade, and even then the cycle was spread out over several months.
For the Germany-based Abegg Trio, these works are standard fare; the group has played the complete cycle 30 times in its 31 years of existence. The trio has also recorded an award-winning set for the TACET label. The group even played them all on the same day, for a 25th anniversary concert.
But the Abegg Trio has never played one in the United States until now. Neither Nancy Lambert, RCMG executive director, nor Richard Luby, head of the Newman Series, remembers any complete cycle in the Triangle for the last 35 years.
Still, the presenters don't see this as a stunt or a gimmick. Aaron Greenwald, director of Duke Performances, thinks his dedicated CAS audiences will welcome the chance to observe how Beethoven matured and developed within a single category.
"I fully expect several hundred of our subscribers to attend all three concerts," Greenwald says.
Luby thinks it's good to focus on one composer, especially when "it's one of the greatest minds the human race has ever produced." He also thinks it will be instructive to hear these works played by a group that maintains a traditional, European approach, not by some newer, high-profile ensemble.
Those who heard the Abegg Trio's first Triangle performance in spring 2005 for the RCMG already understand why their accolades and awards are so numerous. After the concert, Lambert says one longtime subscriber and lifelong chamber music devotee told him, "The Abegg Trio is the best chamber group, of any description, that I have ever heard." Further proof came from the sales of the Abegg's CDs after the concert.
"We made more on our share of the CD proceeds than on the concert tickets," Lambert recalls, still amazed. "I've told them to bring all the CDs they can this time around!"
In recent e-mail from Germany, Abegg pianist Gerrit Zitterbart said he feels an additional responsibility to keep the works fresh. "Every performance should be a bit like a first performance. The audience should feel as if the musicians were creating the works for the first time. Music is just an idea, but playing and hearing it gives life to the idea."
Zitterbart holds the Beethoven piano trios in high regard. "There were many composers writing piano trios at the time, but Beethoven's are unique for their warmth, rhythm and power."
Although a complete cycle has obvious appeal for longtime chamber music aficionados, Luby points out that any one of the concerts would be great for a first-timer.
"Everyone knows the sound of Beethoven now. It's not foreign or intimidating."
Greenwald goes further. "I have a theory that, as our area of the South is steeped in traditional string music going back several centuries, people can easily embrace chamber music as a familiar sound."