This year’s series of Chamber Music Concerts at South Mountain in Pittsfield closed with what was perhaps the most enjoyable offering of live music I enjoyed this year. Particularly satisfying was the discovery of a rarely played gem in the form of Beethoven’s Sting Trio in G major. But, one could hardly be less enchanted by exquisite performances of the more well-known repertoire, such as Brahms first cello sonata in E minor and Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet for Piano and Strings. It is very seldom that the seriously-minded critic, however much he enjoys a performance, finds nothing in it he does not whole-heartedly endorse, such is the subtlety of music and its interpretation. Last Sunday at South Mountain was a glorious exception.
Sunday’s first offering was a production too often dismissively termed “Early Beethoven.” Some geniuses, such as Mozart, and Mendelssohn, wrote sublime masterful pieces from early adulthood (or before) and onwards; but one has to wait until the onset of Beethoven’s so-called second period, heralded by the “Eroica” symphony, to find truly great material from him. Although there is no question that Beethoven matured, at this point in his career, and produced music that was more original, and perhaps ambitious than anyone had ever heard before, we must not make the mistake of making originality a synonym for quality, though, to be sure, early Beethoven is much more original than it normally gets credit for. Beethoven’s style generally has a greater affinity with Haydn, his teacher, than with Mozart.
The String Trio here, for violin, cello, and viola (with Benjamin Beilman violin, David Finckel, cello, and Paul Neubauer, viola), shows Beethoven, perhaps, in his most Mozartian guise. The first movement begins with a set of eased and elegant chord changes, marked adagio, before a darting dash to a wily but elegant second theme under the heading “Allegro con Brio.” In the delectable development, one sees perhaps why trios appealed to the young Beethoven, who wrote volumes of them before he ventured a single string quartet: With fewer musical lines the writing can be clearer and less abstruse, particularly if the music is already fraught with great invention and a sparkling array of musical ideas. Fewer players, of course, mean greater reliance on individual performances, which, in this case, were superb. David Finckel had a stronger, more consistently rich sound than he has ever given us, in recent years, as a member of the Emerson String Quartet, where he tended to err a bit heavily on the side of too much vibrato.
But, the real sensation of the afternoon was the young violinist Benjamin Beilman, whose sound has all the natural projection and power of a premier concert-soloist. In fact, I would have been happy to have seen Mr. Beilman replace most any of the underwhelming cohort of violin soloists this year at Tanglewood. If with Joshua Bell you can get sensitiveness of interpretation, and even sensuality of playing, with mediocre technique, and without good sound, with Beilman you get both.
Of course, Mr. Finckel’s time to shine was clearly the Brahms Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor No.1. When combined with the expert and effusively personal playing of pianist Wu Han, it was something much more attractive than even the annual sold out Yo-Yo Ma, Emmanuel Ax concerts at Ozawa Hall. If any composer had more to gain from a paired-down chamber ensemble, here just a duo, it is Brahms, whose String Quartets are actually some of the least successful of his chamber music output.
I tend to divide Brahms music into roughly two categories, which, in fact, have nothing to do with chronology: There is the singing, inspired, ingenious Brahms and the neurotic, obsessive, over-writing Brahms (all four symphonies, in my estimation, belong to the former category). Here, Brahms reaches easily into an overflowing spring of seemingly endless melody. Brahms’ brilliant sense of development, the ability to somehow make something out of nothing, apparent in even his least successful works, comes off here as a great bonus to add to already brimming musical material, rather than as compensation for a set of musical ideas that are rather ordinary. Here, it is the contour of the melodic lines that lead Brahms naturally to creative harmonic explorations, an ideal which nevertheless proved elusive to many of the towering composers of the Romantic era.
After the intermission, we were treated to Schubert’s Quintet for String Trio, Piano, and Double Bass, with Timothy Cobb, New York Philharmonic principal on bass. As always, Schubert is a font of inspired melody, but the writing, perhaps because of the unorthodox ensemble grouping, lacks the robustness of effect possessed by the afternoon’s other works. Still, there is a measuredness of feeling in what is a fairly early composition for Shubert, which can be very appealing. The jewel of the work is clearly the 4th Movement Andante Theme and Variations set to a lied written by Schubert himself called “Die Forelle” or, “The Trout.” It is a kind of lullaby that is then wittily varied in six variations. And, it is the tune we inevitably go off humming to ourselves as we descend to the sylvan parking lot amidst the color of a Berkshire autumn.