In the 2008-2009 season the legendary Beaux Arts Trio made a poignant final journey, a year-long farewell tour in the world’s great halls. With this broadcast of the Beaux Arts Trio’s final concert at the Library, on April 1st 2008, we’d like to share a few vintage performances by this luminous ensemble, taken from the half-century or so of concerts we’ve recorded here, plus an interview with the Trio’s founding pianist, Menahem Pressler.
As one of the many fortunate international venues presenting the Beaux Arts Trio over its 53-year history, the Library of Congress has enjoyed a long, cordial and comprehensive experience of this hugely influential and universally admired ensemble. For exactly 50 of those years, the Beaux Arts appeared almost annually in our Coolidge Auditorium, with a roster of more than 100 concerts, many nationwide broadcasts, and notable commissions.
Flowering from a January 1958 Library debut when this now-revered group was still the Beaux Arts Trio of New York, the relationship became a longstanding residency. The Trio was much loved by the concert audience here, which welcomed each new member in the group’s several incarnations, witnessing its blossoming over two generations and intimately observing a level of artistry that is rare and profoundly memorable. Only a very few ensembles will rival the Beaux Arts Trio in longevity–and legacy.
We’re happy to say that Menahem Pressler continues to perform, touring as a soloist, and with chamber ensembles of his close friends, some of the world’s top musicians. He recently made his 106th appearance here, at age 86, on January 21, 2010. Stay tuned next season for that concert!
Beaux Arts Trio: The Beaux Arts Trio’s mark in American culture is far-reaching. The ensemble has played a major and ongoing role in the programs of important cultural and educational centers throughout North America, with annual concert series in major musical centers. On the international scene, the group’s annual engagements included appearances at the festivals of Edinburgh, Lucerne, Vienna, Helsinki, Warsaw, and performances in the world’s top concert halls. The Beaux Arts Trio’s recordings, encompassing the entire piano trio literature, won top awards including the Grand Prix du Disques, Gramophone Record of the Year, and the Stereo Review Record of the Year Award.
Called “the Gold Standard” for piano trios, the Beaux Arts essentially established the piano trio as a viable option for American concert presenters in the 1950's. The Library of Congress was one of the earliest presenters to engage the original trio: pianist Menahem Pressler, violinist Daniel Guilet, and cellist Bernard Greenhouse. “When we started,” Pressler says, “there was no such thing. There was the literature, of course, the repertoire–but everyone assumed that a form could not be achieved. Either it’s a poor man’s piano concerto–two strings and half a piano–or it’s one person accompanying two soloists; that was the common assumption. We did it, however; we achieved a sense of balance that is to this day unequaled. You take three eggs, even if they are elephant eggs, and out must come cake. You put something in and what comes out must be greater than the sum of the parts–a direction in which you move together, an interpretation that is refined, established.”
MENAHEM PRESSLER: “What has not changed […] is that sense of looking for the unique experience in the piece. And the great moment cannot be reached through the brain. The brain takes you only so far; it is something in your soul, in your inner makeup, in your inner ear, and that’s what you ask for–that time should stand still. That’s what I remember from great performances that have stayed with me to this day…something very special happens on the rare inspired evening–whether you attend it to listen, or perform…sometimes you are absolutely convinced of something, even though you may later change your opinions or your convictions. This has something to do with inspiration, which is spontaneous. …Sometimes it is as though you press a certain button and all of a sudden it illuminates, clarifies, connects, beautifies. The sound takes on a sheen that you always try for but do not always get. Then all of a sudden you have it…suddenly it seems so obvious, so clear, so deep, so warm.”
ISIDOR COHEN: “When you have the privilege of interpreting this great art, which is not just sensual but philosophical–when as in a Beethoven slow movement sometimes, you are taken out of yourself, one with whatever it is you believe in–and can bring pleasure to others as well, that is supremely gratifying.”
Comments from Menahem Pressler and violinist Isidor Cohen were taken from “The Beaux Arts Trio,” by Nicholas del Banco., William Morrow & CO, 1985. Used by permission.
Ludwig Van Beethoven: Piano Trio in D major, op. 70, no. 1 (“Ghost”) archival performance, 1954
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György Kurtág: Work for Piano Trio
Maurice Ravel: Trio in A minor
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Ravel Trio in A minor
Excerpted from notes provided by Columbia Artists Management Inc.
Ravel began the composition of his only piano trio during the summer of 1913 in the Basque region of France near his birthplace. Little progress was made until the next year when intensive work began in April. Distracted by the imminent outbreak of World War I, he was able to complete the Trio before being accepted into the Air Force. Despite the emotional turmoil of the period, the Trio is remarkably remote and objective with no reference to any extra-musical events.
The Piano Trio is a creation without superfluous details, a masterpiece of form and a work reduced to essentials. Using melodies of exceptional scope, the composer liked to add flair by constructing his themes on irregular metrical schemes, with the Trio containing several examples. The four movement Trio poses difficulty in clear phrasing for the performer when the pace sometimes becomes feverish. These episodes serve as contrast to the calm of the opening and passacaille, but are secondary to the aura of the work, which should be maintained at the greatest level of its broad and noble expression. The rhythm for the first movement is derived from a popular Basque folk dance. Written in 8/8 but divided into 3 and 2 and 3, the folk-like theme has a gentle, swaying effect. Stated first by the piano and then by the strings, several remarkable transformations require incredible virtuosic demands on all three players as Ravel explores an immense range of tone colors and special effects.
The structure of the second movement is based on a Malayan poetic form, the "pantoum." Really a scherzo, the middle section is polymetric as the strings remain in 3/4 time and the piano switches to 4/2 time. The result is a fascinating interplay of cross accents.
The third movement is a passacaglia, a form in which a theme is repeated continually, builds to a climax and then subsides. In this case, the eight-measure theme is heard first in the bass of the piano. Each subsequent variation raises the theme in pitch and increases its textural density. The climax is reached in the seventh variation, after which the music subsides to the final (tenth) variation played by the piano alone. Without pause, the dazzling Finale begins. It is a musical tour de force in which flashy virtuosic runs lead to a powerful dramatic conclusion.
—C Ileen Zovluck, Columbia Artists Management
Considered one of the greatest living composers, and a world ambassador for Hungarian culture, the reclusive Kurtág was one of three composers commissioned in honor of the Beaux Arts Trio’s 50th anniversary.
Born in Lugos (today, Lugoj in Romania), Kurtág studied at the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest with Sándor Veress and Ferenc Farkas, Pál Kados (piano) and Láo Weiner (chamber music.) From 1968 until his retirement in 1986 he was professor of chamber music at the Academy, where he continued to teach until 1993. He was composer in residence with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1993-1994 and the Vienna Konzerthaus in 1995, and in Paris upon the invitation of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, Cité de la Musique, and the Festival d’Automne. In 2006, Kurtág won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for his “…concertante…” op. 42.
György Kurtág has self-confessedly described Bartók as his “mother-tongue.” He was born to Hungarian parents in what used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and became part of Romania in the partitioning after World War I. In 1945 he went to Budapest to study with Bartók, whose much-awaited return to Hungary was aborted by his death in New York.
Kurtág entered the Liszt Academy of Music the following year, and one of the works he composed as a student was the Viola Concerto, reflecting the influence of Bartók’s second violin concerto. After the Hungarian uprising of 1956, Kurtág spent a year in Paris attending classes taught by Messiaen and Milhaud. It was not a particularly felicitous year because, in his own words, it “virtually split my life in two.” In Paris he was counseled by art psychologist Marianne Stein, whose methods enabled him to develop the technical skills to compose very small units of music in his pursuit of simplicity and honesty. These qualities are exemplified in his series of seven Jatékók (Games) volumes for piano, written over a period of thirty years, between 1973 and 2003. As the series title suggests, in these short works akin to the Japanese haiku, Kurtág plays with new ideas, letting the pieces fall together in different ways, like a child discovering different shapes with wooden blocks.
Work for Piano Trio was written for and dedicated to the Beaux Arts Trio, commissioned for the Trio’s 50th anniversary. It was premiered at the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society on December 8, 2005. David Patrick Stearns, music critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote, “…Kurtág’s concentrated, explosive, ultra-abstract music lives on the outer limits of unexplainable intuition…Brief, spare and quite, his Piano Trio consists of motifs only a few notes long that pass each other like ghosts in the night, vaguely remembering a rich relationship from a previous life before becoming adrift in the ether. More than just absorbing, the piece brings you into a reality that’s all the more heightened for having such terse components and none of the usual signposts that allow your intellect to contextualize the music within what you already know. It is pure expedience.”
– Tomás C. Hernández, Music Division, Library of Congress
Last Updated: 03/02/2010