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The Delphi Trio presents three composers in retrospection

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Last night at Old First Church, the Delphi Trio (violinist Liana Bérubé, cellist Michelle Kwon, and pianist Jeffrey LaDeur) returned to the Old First Concerts series with a program entitled Looking Back, Looking Forward. It consisted of trios by three different composers, Joseph Haydn, Gabriel Fauré, and Franz Schubert, each written late in the composer’s life. “Looking Forward” thus involved a connotation future thoughts, possibly including death; yet, in all three cases, the composer could look back on past accomplishments and still move forward in inventive directions.

The Haydn trio was Hoboken XV/27 in C major, the first of his last set of three trios, which he dedicated to the pianist Therese Jansen Bartolozzi. These were composed in 1797, meaning that Haydn still had over ten years of life left in him. Nevertheless, they certain constitute an apex in Haydn’s chamber music efforts, described by H. C. Robbins Landon in Haydn: Chronicle and Works as “the most brilliant musically and the most difficult, technically, of all the works in this form.” To this I would add that Haydn was particularly generous in engaging that wit for which he was so well known.

Still there is an element of “looking forward” in this trio that goes beyond issues of mortality. By 1797 Ludwig van Beethoven had come and gone as a pupil. To some extent he was emerging more as a rival, and the rivalry was not always a particularly friendly one. However, Haydn was both astute enough and secure enough in his own achievements to look at Beethoven and see the future without flinching. Beethoven’s three piano trios had been published as his Opus 1 in 1795 but had been first performed in 1793, establishing his own capacity for both inventiveness and wit.

One may thus imagine that, in spite of the dedication, the three “Bartolozzi” trios may have been delivered as a response to what Haydn had taken to be a shot across the bow by Beethoven. This was the “old dog” showing the “young pup” that he still had plenty of tricks of his own. Last night Delphi brought a level of energy to the execution of this C major trio that seemed to capture, without unduly underscoring, Haydn’s sense of determination. LaDeur was particularly adept in summoning a dynamic range far beyond that of the instruments of Haydn’s period (played with full-stick lid height), through which one could appreciate the wit behind turn-on-a-dime shifts from one dynamic level to another. For all the strength of his instrument, however, it was still always properly balanced with the string parts, both of which shared in an abundance of arresting gestures that presumably were intended (if only as subtext) to make Beethoven sit up and take notice. We may not know how Beethoven reacted, but last night’s performance certainly had that same effect on any attentive listener in the audience.

Fauré’s Opus 120 in D minor was his only piano trio. He finished it in 1923, after which he began work on his only string quartet (in E minor), which was to be his final completed composition. In this case the “young pup” may have been Maurice Ravel, who was about 30 years Fauré’s junior. Ravel’s only string quartet had been one of his earliest efforts, competed in 1903, while the A minor piano trio had been composed in 1914.

Fauré probably did not view Ravel as a rival; but he may still have felt a need to turn to these genres for the first time late in life, appreciating how Ravel had taken such traditional forms and ushered them into the twentieth century. However, if Fauré did not feel threatened by Ravel, he may still have worried about the deterioration of popular tastes. We may not know how Fauré felt about the emergence of jazz, but the final movement of the trio suggests that he had become fed up with what the Italians were doing to opera. The opening theme is about as explicit a reference as one can get to “Vesti la giubba” (put on the costume) from Ruggero Leoncavallo Pagliacci (clowns). Caruso had recorded this in 1907, and it is easy to imagine Fauré finding it hard to get away from both the music and recording (not to mention the Conservatoire students aspiring to Caruso’s heights).

The result is that, after the first two movements, which deftly combine traditional principles of structure with the richness of Fauré’s expressive rhetoric, we get this side-splittingly comic attack on the great warhorse of the tenor repertoire, delivered with the same unabashed wit encountered so frequently in Haydn. By focusing strictly on the music itself, all three Delphi players managed to keep straight faces during this episode, which nicely aligned with Fauré’s mockery of tragedy reduced to triviality. If Fauré was looking to the future, he seemed to be seeing where popular taste was leading it; and he was loud and clear in expressing that he did not like what he saw, allowing the rest of us to enjoy the humor of his uncharacteristic eruption.

The program concluded with Schubert’s D. 929 trio in E-flat major, composed in November of 1827, almost exactly a year prior to the composer’s death. As I have previously observed, Schubert’s final year was probably the most prolific period of his short life; so D. 929 comes at the beginning of this “final streak.” By 1827 Schubert knew full well that he was in bad health, even if he did not know in November than he had only a year of life left to him. Thus, we cannot necessarily claim that D. 929 was the first of a long series of “last gasps.”

However, it was definitely a composition in which Schubert set about to work with structural plans that extended over longer durations than those of his past works. The basic forms were still based in the classical tradition. Schubert never experimented with major architectural departures, as Beethoven had done. However, probably inspired by Beethoven’s seemingly endless capacity for prolongation, Schubert began to engage in similar pursuits; and D. 929 is his first major “success story.”

Schubert distinguished himself from Beethoven particularly in his bold approaches to harmonic progression. He could initiate a prolongation with a modulation that his contemporaries would probably have found outrageous. It was as if he had taken a bold leap into the void, from which he would then blaze a trail that, in good time, would lead him back to his tonic “home.” There are still those who lack patience for these exercises, some of whom (to be left unnamed) have even felt it necessary to cut out “needless” repetitions. Such performers seem unwilling to recognize that a repetition is not necessarily a reproduction, since repletion always takes place in a change of context.

As far as I could tell, Delphi saw no need to cut D. 929 “down to size.” They played out the full extent of Schubert’s journey. Here, again, control over dynamics (again involving some bold decisions from LaDeur) clearly established every moment as unique in nature, all contributing to the broad expanse that Schubert had envisaged and documented. The result was the perfect synthesis of Classical structure with Romantic expressiveness, with both sides of the dialectical opposition held in perfect balance.

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