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The Lee Trio introduces Schnabel-the-composer to its San Francisco audience

The Lee sisters: Melinda, Lisa, and Angela
The Lee sisters: Melinda, Lisa, and Angela
from the Lee Trio Web site

Yesterday afternoon at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Noe Valley Chamber Music concluded its 2013–2014 season with a performance by the Lee Trio. The members are three sisters born in San Francisco, Angela Lee on cello, Lisa Lee on violin, and Melinda Lee Masur on piano. They have established an international reputation for not only their command of standard repertoire but also their expansion of that repertoire through commissions.

Yesterday afternoon, however, that expansion involved a different dimension with the San Francisco premiere of a trio by Artur Schnabel. Schnabel composed this not long after becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States. He wrote it for the Albeneri Trio (violinist Alexander Schneider, cellist Benar Heifetz, and pianist Erich Itor Kahn) in the late summer of 1945 while on holiday in Rockwood, Maine. The premiere took place in the summer of 1947 at the Berkshire Festival in Tanglewood.

Schnabel was one of the first pianists to be associated with a deep knowledge of the German repertoire, a reputation reinforced internationally through a major recording legacy. However, he was more than just a performer, since his richly annotated performing edition of the complete piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven is still a valuable resource. He recorded all of the Beethoven sonatas as well as the late sonatas of Franz Schubert, which were almost entirely neglected in the early twentieth century.

Schnabel was also a good friend of Arnold Schoenberg (who shared his love of the German repertoire). He was well aware of the trails Schoenberg was blazing in composition; but he was just as aware of Paul Hindemith (with whom he performed in a piano quartet). One of his piano sonatas was performed at the 1925 Festival of the International Society for Modern Music in Venice, at which Schoenberg’s Opus 24 serenade was also performed.

Schnabel was clearly interested in how both Schoenberg and Hindemith were pursuing new directions for thinking about dissonance and harmonic progression. Such thoughts are clearly evident in the work performed by the Lee Trio yesterday, but there is no confusing Schnabel with either Schoenberg or Hindemith. I found myself imagining that, with his almost encyclopedic knowledge of the nineteenth-century German piano repertoire, Schnabel was determined to do something different; but that determination led him to follow his own intuitions. Thus, while Angela Lee claimed that the trio was in G major, even the most attentive listener will be hard pressed to encounter much semblance of a dominant-tonic progression in any of this trio’s three movements.

Instead, each movement is an unfolding of restless rhetoric in which each of the instruments explores the full breadth of its pitch range, primarily through a lexicon of relatively brief motifs, strung together in an almost stream-of-consciousness style of discourse. If G major is established at all, it is through the G pitch class stated assertively as a concluding gesture, rather than through some sophisticated logic of harmony. The result is more than a little disorienting, making it also disquieting. However, there is a certain lure to the uncertainty of it all; and I, for one, hope that this trio will receive further exploration by other performing groups. This is music that can only really come to be known through exposure; and it deserves more than the “occasional revelation” performance.

Yesterday’s program began with the Schnabel trio and concluded with Robert Schumann’s first piano trio (Opus 63 in D minor). This made for an informative coupling, not only because Schumann was a major contributor to the German piano repertoire but also because the first movement shows signs of the same restless rhetoric that seems to have guided Schnabel’s composition. Schumann’s thematic material is far more explicit; but, in that opening movement, it first emerges from a somewhat murkier agitated texture. Nevertheless, Schumann always had a comfort zone of boldly asserted declarative sentences, and one finds those sentences at the core of each of the four movements of this trio. That boldness also characterized the Lee approach to the score in a style that honored both the technical demands and Schumann’s intense expressiveness in equal measure.

Schnabel and Schumann were separated by early Beethoven, specifically the second (G major) of the three Opus 1 trios. Both the pre-concert talk by Peter Susskind and some prefatory remarks by Melinda Lee Masur made note that Beethoven studied under Joseph Haydn but was not particularly happy about it. I have tended to think of Beethoven as the obstreperous student who thinks he knows all of the master’s tricks. (The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was full of them when I was there.) We can then consider the Opus 1 trios as efforts to show off how Beethoven could go beyond Haydn, so to speak.

This is immediately evident in the considerable prolongation of the opening Adagio. (Beethoven would do far more with this particular element of structural technique as he matured.) That prolongation in turn reveals the first suggestion of the opening theme for the following Allegro Vivace, which, for the most part, allows the listener to settle back into familiar structural conventions. However, this is also a composition in which Beethoven decided that the best way to honor Haydn’s capacity for wit was to outdo it. As a result, he concocted a madcap Finale at Presto tempo (of course), which gamboled its way from one lively theme to another. The Lee Trio was particularly adept in giving free rein to this abundant palette of witty gestures, handling each of them with just the right light touch to make the comic delivery memorable.

Indeed, they seem to enjoy this side of Beethoven so much that they used it for their encore. This was the final movement from the first of the Opus 1 trios in E-flat major. Here again the rhetoric of performance excellently matched the abundant wit that Beethoven displayed with such enthusiasm.

I would, however, like to conclude with one observation about balance. While the trio always shined when a light touch was required, many of the more intensely expressive moments were not always as certain. One problem may have been raising the piano lid to full-stick height, which resulted in the piano dynamics tending to overwhelm the other two performers. Given the sensitivity of the St. Mark’s acoustics, the piano would have been just as audible with the lid raised by the short stick; and the overall balance of the trio would have been far more secure.