Voice of North Carolina
on a Beethoven Journey with Germany's Abegg Trio
by John W.
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.
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.
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....
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
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
by means of their four CDs devoted to Beethoven's
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
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
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
now represents Bösendorfer pianos in Raleigh.
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
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.
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
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.
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....
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
trios played all in one weekend
"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.
three-day, three-concert schedule boasts all the Beethoven piano
trios played by acknowledged masters of the form, the Abegg Trio.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
fully expect several hundred of our subscribers to attend all three
concerts," Greenwald says.
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,
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
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!"
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
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."
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.
knows the sound of Beethoven now. It's not foreign or intimidating."
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."